1992 North Carolina
Guided by a natural artistry, Mrs. Emma Dupree told stories—healing
stories—based on her intimate knowledge of the salutary properties of plants
and herbs native to Eastern North Carolina.
Mrs. Dupree was born on the Fourth of July, in 1897, among the cotton
and peanut fields of rural Pitt County.
She was the seventh child in a family of eighteen. “They say the seventh one will
be over-endowed in everything,” she said. “I was a different child.”
As she grew she developed a
strong empathy for people.
“People talked and I listened
and my heart was big enough
to hold all that. I was strong in
When she became a little older, she began to roam the woods and the creeks,
collecting roots and bark, leaves, stems, and seeds, and learning about their
She became known as “the woods gal,” or that “little medicine thing.”
In later years she still collected
some of her materials in the wild
and around her old homeplace.
But she cultivated most of her
medicinal herbs and plants in her
Her pharmacy was a garden filled with natural wonders: double tansy,
rabbit tobacco, sage . . .
. . . sweet flag, pokeweed, jimson
weed, white mint, mullein, catnip . . .
. . . horseradish, sassafras, silkweed, and maypop.
Mrs. Dupree made up a variety of special teas and tonics and dispensed them in
pickle and mayonnaise jars brought by her clients.
She gave verbal
instructions for using
her preparations. As
she put it, “I give the
label with my mouth.”
Mrs. Dupree assembled dry herbs and packaged them in newspapers. She had
remedies for everything from skin rashes to “fluttering of the heart.” She made up
a special pillow filled with rabbit tobacco for allergy sufferers; and offered jimson
weed as an inhalant for asthma.
Mrs. Dupree worked most of her life as a
housekeeper, cook, and child care
provider, much of the time for a doctor
and his family in her home community of
She never made a living through her practice of herbal medicine or charged for
“There wasn’t nobody sick nowhere around me, around Falkland, white or
colored, but that I wouldn’t be there.”
Mrs. Dupree’s human touch, as well as her knowledge, won the affection of
countless friends and clients.
Photographs by Mary Anne McDonald