Fans Remember ‘Little Medicine Thing’: Marker, Celebration Honors Fountain Herbalist Emma Dupree | Report

FONTAINE – A woman who was a healer for her community at a time when doctors here were even rarer than they are today has left a legacy honored by admirers with stories and a new road marker during a celebration earlier this month.

On April 16, the city of Fountain unveiled the marker for herbalist Emma Dupree, who gained fame for her folk remedies across the country after researchers at East Carolina University’s fledgling medical school made a documentary about her called “Little Medicine Thing” in 1978.

Funded by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation with assistance from the North Carolina Folklife Institute, the new marker stands on Railroad Street at the corner of Mills Street, near the house where she grew herbs and made tonics for decades. before his death in 1996 at the age of 99.

Parents and admirers attended the unveiling and remembered the town’s favorite girl at the fourth Emma Dupree Day celebration at Fountain Presbyterian Church.

“I’m a member of this little church, and when we were trying to think of an Earth Day celebration (several years ago), we thought the original mother of Earth was Emma Dupree, so let’s have Emma Dupree Day “said Alex Albright, a Pitt County commissioner and leader of the small town of about 430 residents. “And we try to do that every year the week before Earth Day and we embrace her as the original mother of Earth.”

Dupree’s strength came from her firm belief that she was placed on this land to do good and received the knowledge of healing because she spent so much time in the woods exploring, wandering and learning. on plants, said Jane Rose, pastor of Fountain Presbyterian.

“Then she used these plants to brew them to help people, she became the doctor for this whole community here, and she never blamed anyone because she felt she was just a vessel and that God was using it through these plants to help others,” Rosé said.

Cultural anthropologist Holly Matthews has done field research on traditional health care in Central America and the American South focusing on African American herbalists. Rather than take to the podium, she stood where she sat among the audience and spoke about her experience with Dupree.

She visited Dupree once or twice a year. His kitchen was full of jars and pots of things to cook, and Dupree was showing some of them and explaining them.

“One thing I wanted to point out was how generous she was,” Matthews said. “There are a lot of things that divide us today in this country, but she was a united person, and she treated anyone, black, white, rich or poor, and she shared her remedies.”

Matthews met a white woman from Rocky Mount who, as a Bible healer, only used plants from the Bible. The healer pulled out a jar of balsam pear, a subtropical vine that came to this country from West Africa and that Matthews had heard about from Dupree. The healer said that Dupree gave it to her after hearing about Dupree and she went to see her.

“So this sharing of information and integrating it into his practice was really remarkable,” Matthews said.

Matthews said she remembered Dupree making sassafras tonic and wanted everyone to drink it in the spring because it was a blood purifier and the same with eating poke salad. Dupree advised his visitors to be very careful with the poke salad because it is poisonous, but if you eat the young greens after washing them a lot, it is believed to be really good as a preventative for ill health, a said Matthews.

“I just read last week that they are currently researching compounds from the poke plant for its antitumor properties,” Matthews said. “So a lot of what she learned from practical experience is still today the sources of our medicines, and we forget that sometimes because we just see (medicines) come out of a bottle and we don’t know their plant origins.”

Herbalist Joni Torres, Fountain resident and manager of the Pitt County Community Garden, shared with guests herbs like basil, lemon verbena, lavender, mint and red hibiscus and explained how they can be cultivated and used for different purposes. The red hibiscus originated in Africa, but there are now Asian and Caribbean versions. Producers harvest the flower and dry it to make tea, cook with it, eat it raw and make curries.

“It’s a really great tropical plant, and every year you have to save the seeds because it’s not something commonly found in nurseries. And I think Emma Dupree would have approved of this plant,” said Torres, who encouraged the audience to grow some of his own plants and brought brochures and materials to take home.

Dupree’s knowledge and generosity brought him great fame, said Walter Shepard, founding director of health services research at ECU Brody School of Medicine and one of the producers of “Little Medicine Thing” in 1978. He said a simple Google search of Dupree’s name will yield a wealth of material. “You could literally spend a week reviewing all the Emma Dupree articles and tributes.”

A group called the Aspiring Sisters in Herbal Education in Stone Mountain, Georgia named their festival Earth Day in honor of Emma Dupree, he said. Outside of Nashville, Tennessee, The Healing Oracle Herbal Apothecary has a herbal education academy with an Emma Dupree scholarship fund. Sunshine Botanicals in Atlanta, Georgia honored her in its tribute to women in herbal medicine in February and a Mountain Rose Herbs in Eugene, Oregon recognized her in 2021 in a blog titled “Living In the Legacy of African American healers”.

She was famous even before the internet, Shepard said. The Tulsa World newspaper in Oklahoma ran an article titled “Herbalist, 94, Let’s Nature Heal” about Dupree that is cited almost as much as Little Medicine Thing, he said. Last year, Pamela Sumners of St. Louis, Missouri, wrote a poem about her, “Granny Woman Emma Dupree 1897-1992,” published in a quarterly literary magazine called “Halfway Down The Stairs.”

Shepard came to ECU in 1975 to work toward obtaining medical school accreditation. The shortage of doctors in the region was a major concern and central to their mission, he said. “I helped set up a number of rural health centers, recruited doctors through the National Service Corps and other means, but I was curious: if there was a shortage so acute from medical professionals in eastern North Carolina, what are people doing? And I found out they would go to their neighbors,” Shepard said.

In those days people would go to pharmacists who did a lot of medicine, they would go to see publications, and they would also go to people like Dupree, natural healers, and some of them were legitimate workers who mixed a lot of different beliefs, he said. He wanted to find out first hand what was going on and had the opportunity to come to Fountain, knock on Dupree’s door and, as a result, spend hours listening to and learning from her.

During filming, Dupree never asked for anything in return, but he would bring her interesting candies, jars and containers, Shepard said. They spoke of Seven Springs in Duplin County where a resort stood from 1881 to 1941 and where people went to take the healing waters. Her father took her there when she was a child and she hadn’t been back since she was 14. So, on one of his trips to Duplin County, he stopped at the site, drew water from the spring, and brought it in a gallon jug. She danced a jig, she was so happy, he said.

“We shot the set in the summer and it was very hot,” Shepard said. “We started the first part of the video on the porch, which many of you remember sitting with Ms. Emma, ​​and that’s how we introduced the video.”

Shepard said they then walked around the yard where she identified the different herbs she was growing, “and if you watched her walk around her yard in that pretty yellow dress, she was moving like she was 20 years old.” , he said.

“Emma mentioned a man from Greenville who was referred to her and she gave him one of her tonics. He later returned after a subsequent visit to his doctor in Greenville and his blood pressure was much improved,” Shepard said. “What he didn’t mention to his doctor was that he was no longer taking the prescribed medications, but instead taking his tonic.”

Part of the reason he wanted to do the documentary was to use it as a teaching mechanism for medical students and residents and others so they could see that there’s a whole other world of health care delivery is happening around them that they needed to be aware of. “I visited this man and it was a true account of what she told me,” Shepard said.

“I’ve never heard her refer to herself other than Little Medicine Thing, and said that was the perfect title for the documentary,” Shepard said. To put what she did in perspective, Shepard said she wasn’t some random folk healer: she worked side-by-side with doctors.

“If you listen to the video, she has an incredible medical vocabulary that is beyond anything an average layperson would ever have learned. So she was using terminology and practices that were not uncommon in late 19th century medical practice. of the 20th century,” Shepard said.

Shepard said he asked her for all the medical words she knew, wrote them down on a flashcard, sat them in front of her, and she was able to give him a comprehensive overview of a medical belief system that she was associated with. amazing logic. “So it wasn’t just some random mess she was talking about, it was logically constructed and it made perfect sense,” Shepard said.

Shepard said he appreciates the Fountain community embracing him and his heritage, and said the marker was the most beautiful roadside recognition he had ever seen.

Dupree’s granddaughter, Veronica D. Newton, said her grandmother had a big impact on the community and was so proud of herself and to be part of her legacy. “Everyone would flock to her when they had ailments because she knew all the herbs for any ailment,” Newton said. “They trusted her and that was obviously part of what helped them heal.”

Veronica V. Newton, Dupree’s great-granddaughter, thanked everyone for sharing her experience and honoring her matriarch.

“It was very insightful and overwhelming,” she said. “Just knowing the impact she has had on the community is heartwarming, and the family is thrilled to hear the stories of others and the impact she has had is truly wonderful.”

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