Emma Dupree (1897 - 1996)
Truly a spirit who was one with nature, Emma Dupree was one of the twentieth century’s greatest herbalists. Her roots were firmly planted on July 4, 1897, when she was born in Pitt County, North Carolina. The daughter of former slaves, Noah and Pennia Williams, Emma was the seventh of their eighteen children.
Emma grew up along the dark waters of the Tar River and spent her days exploring the surrounding woods for herbs and other medicinal plants. Unlike many children in her day, Emma was more drawn to nature than to toys, She was often teased by other children and even called “woods gal”. For Emma, Mother Nature was her teacher and her classroom. She used all five senses and perhaps a few others, to pick perfect herbs. She would observe the plants extensively and smell, feel and even taste them to assess their quality.
During her harvesting excursions, Emma would store herbs in a tin bucket or in her coattails. Eventually, her explorations in nature and her herbal practices became known as her “little medicine thing.”
Emma’s garden-grown pharmacy, which was more formidable than Walgreen’s, was chock full of herbs, which included mullein, white mint, silkweed, rabbit tobacco, sassafras, and many, many others that were used for salves, tonics, elixirs, and teas. To complement her herbal practices, Emma had a green thumb for growing herbs, plants, and trees for their healing powers. She even had a tree that she dubbed her “healing berry tree.” When asked about it, she said, “Now that tree, I don’t know of another name for it, but it’s in the old-fashioned Bible, and the seed for it came from Rome.”
Emma lived and thrived in her community for nine decades, providing healing services to clients far and wide. She became the unchallenged sage of Pitt County, providing care for people as well as animals. Her remedies included but were not limited to treatments for colicky babies, lice, skin conditions, headaches, high blood pressure, diabetes, and much more! In her own words, Emma once stated, “All that we see, everything that is growin’ in the earth, is healin’ to the nation of any kind of disease.”
One of Emma’s most famous elixirs, which she made every day for eighty years, treated nearly anything. One of her clients proclaimed, “Two swallers and it’ll knock a sore throat right out.” Sadly, the secret to that healing elixir was lost with Emma’s death.
Emma used white mint to treat poor blood circulation, tansy tea for low blood sugar, catnip tea for colicky babies, and mullein for stomach pains, diarrhea, and constipation. She would often sweeten bitter herbs with molasses of peppermint candy.
In 1984, Emma was recognized by the North Carolina Folklore Society for her contributions by being presented the Brown-Hudson Award. Her accolades continued in 1992, when she was awarded the North Carolina Heritage Award for her lifetime achievements in the traditional arts.
Upon her death in 1996, Emma Dupree was laid to rest in the Saint John’s Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Falkland, North Carolina. Emma’s herbalist accomplishments and history are still celebrated to this day. In 2019, a 40-minute film entitled Little Medicine Thing: Emma Dupree Herbalist was shown by the Winterville Historical and Arts Society in Winterville North Carolina. The original footage of the film was shot in 1979 by the School of Medicine in East Carolina University. In the film, Emma shares her knowledge with her family as well as several medical anthropologists and doctors, so that they could gain a better understanding of the medicinal powers of the plants native to the region.
Emma’s legacy is bigger than life, and the tendrils of her herbal practices have reached far beyond what she could have ever imagined.
(excerpted from Chapter 2.)
To learn more about the brilliant Emma Dupree and more unsung herbalists, their methods, and herbal uses, get your copy of The Divine Fiat: Black Excellence in Herbalism.