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Emma Dupree
Folk Arts Falkland
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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 students.

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.