A Lesson From Emma Dupree and the Granny Women Who Endure

Every week I will feature the kind of everyday heroes I look up to. They come from all walks of life, age groups and beliefs. I hope you’ll learn as much from them as I have!

Emma Dupree was born in the summer of 1897, on the Fourth of July, in North Carolina. She remained their for the rest of her life until her death in 1996. The child of slaves, Emma – like most African-Americans in her vicinity- was a farmer with her husband Austin Dupree Jr. However, from a young age Emma was pulled to a different vocation, one that was equally invaluable to those she aided: herbalism. Emma – known as a “granny woman” or healer – could look at a wound and know what plant would stop the spread of infection, she could ease the symptoms of a cold with a tonic. Paige Williams, who interviewed Emma in 1992,  wrote:

“Before her came African root doctors and Indian medicine men. People believed their mystical potions could cure body and soul and sometimes they could. Some modern medicines still use herbal derivatives.”

Emma said she was called to the woods at an early age, determined to learn from nature. I can’t say I have the same desire, (I hate bugs) but I admire her, nonetheless. She gave in to the knowledge of the natural world, carried on the lessons her ancestors passed down, and went about making others well. Emma was strong enough to do good in her community, without a degree or prestige, simply because it had to be done. Paige wrote that Emma was still lively during the interview, moving about with pep, stretching, and anxious to get to work. In reading, it’s hard to sense any worry for the end in Emma, only concern about the next batch of tonic.

Image by Anne McDonald

In reading about Emma I was reminded of a woman who has become something of a myth to me over the years. My grandmother, one of the great ones whose pictures are in sepia tones, lived well past 100 years. In fact, she was born a slave, but was still around to babysit my father. Can you imagine putting up with the nonsense of life for that long? Watching babies grow, leaders come in and out of fashion, laws being made and undone, people loving then marrying; I truly feel jealousy to think of the wonders she must have encountered. That jealousy is tempered by the knowledge she surely encountered hardship as well.

Her name was Edith, or Grandma Summerville, as my father calls her. He said he was afraid of her at first, because with a long nose and mole she resembled the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White. She was small, tiny even, standing around five feet. Luckily, his fears were unfounded, because she was the personification of kindness. She held my father when he was ill, told him stories to make him smile and maintained the stoic goodness of a warrior through tribulations. Edith raised her son – my great-great-grandfather – then his daughters when he and his wife Clara were taken by murder and childbirth. My great-grandmother Mary was one of those daughters. Mary’s daughter is my grandmother,and from her there’s my father. So many people Edith loved and cared for, with little more than the grit in her soul. I began re-evaluating whom I admire once I learned about the little lady who looked like a witch, but was kinder than an angel.

I started researching herbalism in the pursuit of gaining a better understanding of wellness and how we take care of one another. History is present in the ways we heal, who we turn to, and what we choose to take with us from the lesson. Learning of Emma got me thinking about what survives us, what’s left when all that was is dust. It’s our intentions and the outcome of our actions, however small, that will endure. I never met Edith or Emma, however the feeling of adoration is overwhelming. Two black women separated from us by time and space, who nevertheless inspire the strength to get on with the healing. Two little ladies who had no business being so unbreakable, so noble and good in a world designed to obstruct their survival. They did it; they lived and watched others do it, too.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” – Seneca

As you learn and grow today, remember Emma and maybe even think about my grandmother. Then, take heart that you can make it. Better yet? You deserve to.

Stay strong out there.


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