The story of John Milton Wesley’s granddad’s “home remedies,” for which he was most famous, had to do with the use of ladybugs to eat the boll weevils that threatened to swallow his cotton crop during the 1950s. (Courtesy of unsplash)

By John Milton Wesley
Special to the AFRO

Granddad had a hole in his lower left leg the size of a lemon. It was from a gunshot wound he received during an illegal card game. He did not believe in doctors, so we treated it by putting his leg in a number three tub and pouring peroxide in the wound. Afterward, we wrapped the hole in strips of torn sheets placed on the pot-bellied stove for sterilization. We did this twice daily, or some days three times, depending on the amount of its smelly discharge. 

To complicate matters on his way across our field behind our house, one day, a rattle snake spooked his horse, and he fell, and a cotton stalk got caught in the wound, and gangrene set in.

One day we found a plant with a yellow flower he had been looking for in some weeds next to Mr. Lee Seals’ cotton patch. We brought some home, boiled them that evening, and poured the juice into and over the hole with his leg in the tub. In about a week, the discharge ceased. Then the swelling about the leg began to decrease, and the gaping hole began to shrink and turn inward. About three weeks later, the swelling was down at least 50%, and the hole was about the size of a peach seed. About the sixth week, sides of the hole touched as a crease began to form over it, the wound and the hole closed up. 

(Courtesy of unsplash)

Born in 1894 and a descendant of Africa’s Congo, his family migrated to the Sea Islands of South Carolina. He grew up in the Gullah culture and was known as a “Geechee.” Grand used his knowledge of healing not only to close the hole in his leg, but to save our fruit trees from parasites and our cotton field from boll weevils. 

To save the fruit trees (peach, apricot, and apple, fig and pear) he instructed me to fill glass Coca-Cola bottles half with ashes from our woodpile and the top half with water. He ordered me to tie the bottles to the trees at various levels, using coat hangers. When the water was sufficiently heated, the mixture would slowly evaporate, emitting an odor and establishing an environment in which the parasites could not thrive. The following year our fruit was bug-free. Soon all of our neighbors duplicated the process, and the yields of their trees increased exponentially.

However, the story of grand dad’s “home remedies,” for which he was most famous, had to do with the use of ladybugs to eat the boll weevils that threatened to swallow our cotton crop during the 1950s.

Approximately one-third of all the pesticides in use in the country at the time was to fight the invasive boll weevil. We couldn’t afford the expensive pesticides, but we could afford ladybugs, or Hippodamia convergens, one of the best-known predators in the world, and they loved to eat.. boll weevils. So, granddad started ordering them from someplace, via a Farmer’s Almanac, and in the evenings after the sun went down, we’d walk every cotton row sprinkling the ladybugs who in turn ate the boll weevils and saved our crop. Later, I would learn the University of California had launched an all-out fight against the pests about the same time using primarily vedalia beetles (a.k.a. ladybugs) and other predator insects. The scientists from U.C. got the info from Australia and brought them insects to California. But, how would granddad know? He had a third-grade education and signed his name at the time (because he could barely read or write) with an “X.”

Therefore when the AFRO’s editors asked me if I wanted to contribute a piece to its special edition on “home remedies,” I jumped at the chance. Growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 50s and 60s with limited medical care access, more than once, my life depended on them.    

Still, the most excellent repository of home remedies was not my granddad but my grandmom, born in 1897 in Port Gibson, Miss. She attended Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University), which began admitting women in 1895.

She graduated sometime during the early 20s with a degree in an undergraduate degree in nursing and elementary education. She taught for a while before being hired to work part-time as a nanny for wealthy Jewish families. Like the women made famous in the movie “The Help,” she was a surrogate mother in the homes of the wealthy. She and her girlfriend, Fannie Lou Hamer, who was also my godmother,” often worked for the same White families. Mrs. Hamer was the cook. She would later become well known for her work in civil rights. My grandmother would go on to open the first kindergarten for Blacks in Sunflower County, Miss., in 1952, on her front porch. One of her students became the first Black superintendent of education, Dr. Thomas Earl Edwards. 

The high school in Ruleville is now named for Dr. Edwards. The street (Weber) on which I was born and where the school was located is now “Sarah Sanders Lane,” named after my grandmother.

Wesley’s grandmother, Sarah Sanders Lane, had a home remedy known to straighten out “bow legged” babies. (Courtesy of unsplash)

However, mothers with kindergarten-age children were not the only ones dropping off babies at our house early in the morning as grand mom walked home just after sunrise from getting the White family’s kids ready for school. Young mothers and grandmothers who had babies born with “bow-legs,” or with legs that were bowed below the knee, also dropped them off at our house. Grandmom had a home remedy known to straighten the baby’s legs out. Our house faced south with double windows on the east side through which the bright sun shined on her bed next to double windows. She would place the sleeping babies first on their stomachs and then on their backs with their legs pointing towards the window. She would allow them to sleep in the sun, massaging the legs and turning them periodically. Awake, she would feed them fresh oranges.

She taught this method to the women, who then practiced it at home. Within months, their babies’ legs would straighten out. Of course, none of it made sense to me at the time, but the proof was, (as she always said), in the pudding. 

Such treatments, or home remedies, were a mainstay in Black communities in the south. Out of it came a wealth of non-traditional treatments known as naturopathy, a system of alternative medicine based on the theory that diseases could be successfully treated or prevented without drugs by techniques such as control of diet, exercise and massage.

A home remedy is a prepared medication or tonic often of unproven effectiveness administered without prescription or professional supervision. Home remedies were a mainstay in Black communities in the south. (Courtesy of unsplash)

Just what is a home remedy you might ask? It is simply a prepared medication or tonic often of unproven effectiveness administered without prescription or professional supervision, compare them to folk medicine. 

It is only fair at this point that I insert my disclaimer, lest I be accused of practicing medicine. I am no doctor. I have lived holistically practicing naturopathy for most of my life. Unlike my grandad, I never disliked doctors or distrusted them; I just worked as hard as I could to avoid needing to come in contact with them. Then I moved “up south” to Maryland and into a multi-cultural environment where I learned of, was exposed to, and came in contact with more viruses, carcinogens, fast foods, drugs, stress, well you get my drift. Soon, an annual check became more critical as a baseline. The difference being,  I had learned to respond to things going on in my body, from which I received some recognizable signal. Still, I was not as prepared to recognize life-threatening changes for which I am (with all that is going on) still unable to recognize the signs.

Of course, mamas had a saying or remedy for that too, and it was “what you don’t see can kill you.”

How ironic as we confront the pandemic of COVID-19, that before having a vaccine, we were forced to rely for the most part on home remedies such as handwashing, face masks, social distancing, immune-boosting, air cleansing and other holistic practices.

There isn’t a single remedy that does not begin with handwashing, including handwashing, ending with handwashing and requiring handwashing as a given. (Courtesy of unsplash)

There are some common threads; handwashing is one of them. I can’t think of a single remedy that did not begin with handwashing, including handwashing, ending with handwashing, and requiring handwashing as a given. 

Some universal truths are also espoused by such respected “see-ers” and believers as author Katherine Ponder wrote..”there is no sickness except obstruction and no healing except flow.” Long before that Swiss Alchemist and lay theologian Theophrastus von Hohenheim, or Paracelsus said “The healing comes from nature and not the physician. Therefore, the physician must start from nature with an open mind.”  

One thing is for sure, or at least that I came to believe, is that an open mind is essential to the success of the remedy but is not a requirement. After all, I didn’t believe the hole in my grandad’s leg would close up; I just knew it wasn’t supposed to be there. Being a nurse, Grandmom was also skeptical and kept in the dark about granddad’s remedy, which is why we kept it a secret from her until the hole began to close up. She, too, was amazed once it worked. 

When I was a child, home remedies seemed to have come in two categories, those that worked on the body and those that worked inside the body, for example, their work on legs. However, grand mom’s home remedies I remember most are those that worked in the body. Some of  them were less pleasant to the taste buds than others, and if you are 70 or older several of these I am sure you will have heard of, if not consumed.

Let us start with Castor Oil. Ugh! Taking this oily, foul-smelling liquid was an annual thing. 

In ancient Greece, castor oil was used as a laxative, and Pliny the Elder spoke of castor oil as “a strong purgative.” During the Middle Ages, it was used to treat skin conditions like rashes, ringworm, and warts.

Castor oil allegedly was a weapon in Cleopatra’s beauty arsenal, the Queen of the Nile is said to have used it in her hair and, some sources say, to brighten the whites of her eyes. The wildest part about this oil’s story for me is that East Africans figured out how to grow it above ground in the form of a plant. But that’s another story.

The most famous use as punishment came in Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini. It was a favorite tool used by the Blackshirts to intimidate and humiliate their opponents. Political dissidents were force-fed large quantities of castor oil by Fascist squads. I hope from this you can gather I didn’t like to see grandmom coming with the bottle and the big spoon. The good news is she always followed it up with a big glass of orange juice or pineapple juice. Thank God for juices!

I hold a special place in my heart for pineapple juice, though I haven’t drunk any in over 50 years. It’s too sweet for me. However, my grandmother was a diabetic, and while the “real” doctors in the early 50s were still trying to figure out the difference between “hyperinsulinemia” and “hypo-insulinism,” we just wanted to keep her alive.

Each morning I would give her 80 ccs of Eli Lilly insulin. I started when I was 7 years old. If she began to drift into a coma or drift off to sleep with her eyes open (also a sign of an impending coma), a glass of pineapple juice with a teaspoon of sugar added, once swallowed would bring her back to life almost immediately.  Again, as a little kid, I didn’t know how it worked or why it worked; but I knew it worked. 

Another home remedy Grandmom used to make sure the new babies’ navels developed correctly. She’d cut up strips of old sheets, wash them and place them on the pot-bellied stove to dry until they turned brown. Then she would wrap them around the baby’s stomach, covering the navel, allowing it to avoid strain and grow inward.  

Wanda Best, chairwoman of the Upton Planning Committee, and a nutritionist by trade, and a native of South Carolina, shared several home remedies she remembered from her childhood. 

*Take regular mothballs, put them in green/grain alcohol, and let them dissolve some, then use the alcohol to rub for arthritis. 

*After a bad burn, a person would talk the fire out of the burn. 

*A piece of fatback and a penny would be taped to a cut to help it heal. 

*Mothers used cod liver oil to keep the bowels regular and eliminate children’s intestinal worms.

There are a couple I like too. I remember the one that required me to eat garlic soaked in Old Grandad Whiskey. I’ve forgotten what the sickness was, but I used to try and catch it at least once in winter each year.  

And who can forget Dr. Tischner’s antiseptic for sore throats and a rag around the head and jaw for the mumps, or chicken soup for colds?

Of course, if you could combine all of these with a good old nap in Grandmom’s bed, that would be nice too.

Thankfully naturopathy, better diet and nutrition, holistic living and the healing arts have become more mainstream. Mom and Grandmom’s admonitions to eat your vegetables, wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze as we wrestle with a global pandemic, seem almost prophetic. 

So, what better way or time for you to think back on something “Mama’n nem” did when you were a kid to make you feel better? Do it to celebrate Women’s History Month and tell somebody the story.