1992 N.C. Heritage Award Recipient
It was not so long ago that people in rural North Carolina entrusted
their health to persons who practiced herbal medicine. Traditional
healers and midwives were indispensable to communities without
access to professional health care. Mrs. Emma Dupree was an herbalist
of great renown in her section of Pitt County.
Born in the little community of Falkland on July 4, 1897, the
seventh child in a family of eighteen, Mrs. Dupree always knew
she was special. "They say the seventh one will be over-endowed
in everything," she said. "I was a different child. People talked
and I listened and my heart was big enough to hold all that. I
was strong in my talking. I was just born to that."
According to folklorist Karen Baldwin of East Carolina University,
what Mrs. Dupree was born to was "a tradition of knowing about
the curative and preventative uses of the natural pharmacopoeia
which grew along the banks of the creeks and branches and the
Tar River." As a young child she developed an unquenchable fascination
with plants and their medicinal properties. She spent endless
hours roaming the woods gathering leaves, bark, stems, and seeds
which she collected in a sack. "The woods gal, that's what they
called me. They'd say, here comes that little medicine thing."
She developed a deep knowledge of the healing effects of native
herbs and plants, which gained her a wide following in the community.
"There wasn't nobody sick nowhere around me, around Falkland,
white or colored, but that I wouldn't be there," she told Dr.
Baldwin. For most of the last century, she prepared special teas
and her "nine-herb" tonic and dispensed them in pickle and mayonnaise
jars brought to her by her patients. She issued instructions for
their use verbally. "I give the label with my mouth," she explained.
Said Dr. Baldwin, "Mrs. Dupree is always grateful for contributions
of ingredients she needs for her preparations--honey, molasses,
brown sugar, rock candy, horehound, lemons, vinegar, and mineral
water--but she does not exchange her help for money."
Mrs. Dupree cultivated most of the herbs and plants she used in
her tonics and teas. Her garden pharmacy included sage, double
tansy, rabbit tobacco, sweet flag, pokeweed, jimson weed, white
mint, mullein, maypop, catnip, horseradish, sassafras, and silkweed.
In her backyard she grew a special tree, which she called her
healing berry tree. "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."
Eventually, Mrs. Dupree's reputation brought her to the attention
of physicians and medical anthropologists at East Carolina University's
School of Medicine. A video documentary titled Little Medicine Thing was produced to capture something of Mrs. Dupree's philosophy
and practice of herbal medicine, and is regularly shown to medical
Described as a treasure by those who know her, Mrs. Dupree helped countless people throughout her long lifetime. Her wisdom,
expertise, and human relations skills were never out of date.