Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

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Web of Healing


(image courtesy of American Philosophical Society)

Healing Among African Americans

Studying healing amongst African Americans in 18th-century Philadelphia adds a fascinating perspective to our understanding of the medicine we know today and the many other healing practices we commonly refer to as “folk” or “alternative”.  In this section of the Web of Healing, you will find resources to help you investigate the experience of health and healing among African Americans in 18th-century Philadelphia. 

Slavery in Philadelphia

The Quakers, a religious group which settled in Pennsylvania in search of religious freedom, brought the first blacks to Philadelphia to serve as slaves in 1684.  In the decades between the late-17th and the mid-18th centuries, most of the blacks to arrive in Philadelphia had previously lived enslaved in the West Indies or in the southern colonies.  Between 1740 and 1770 the import of slaves directly from West Africa to Philadelphia peaked.  While those blacks who had lived in Philadelphia for several generations adopted or assimilated many of the healing practices (and other forms of culture) of whites, this influx of slaves from West Africa may have reintroduced or reinvigorated forms of healing considered to be traditionally African. 

Knowledge “Old” and “New”

Though we will not be able to fully reconstruct the experience of healing among African Americans in the 18th century, you should be able to trace at least three significant themes as you navigate this portion of the website:

1) Blacks living in Philadelphia were not a homogenous group, particularly towards the end of the 18th-century.  Individuals arriving at different times from different places — including Western Africa, the West Indies, and the southern plantation regions of America — meant a mixing of different forms of knowledge about health and healing.  

2) The impact of slavery on blacks did not serve to strip them of their African cultural heritage.  Even as they integrated practices of their white masters and fellow Philadelphians, they retained (and even cultivated) approaches to healing characterized by a connection between spirituality and healing.  In fact, as the essays in this section will show, relations between blacks and whites in 18th-century Philadelphia were characterized by a great deal of cultural exchange.  

3) Finally, not only did blacks and whites actively and passively exchange ideas about healing, but many of the “folk” or spiritual healing practices of blacks also had intrinsic similarities to those of whites.