Working Cures

Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

By Sharla M. Fett

304 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 13 illus., 1 map, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5378-8
    Published: May 2002
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6980-7
    Published: November 2000
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-9892-5
    Published: November 2000

Gender and American Culture

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Awards & distinctions

2003 Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award, Southern Historical Association

2003 James A. Rawley Prize, Organization of American Historians

2003 Willie Lee Rose Prize, Southern Association for Women Historians

2003 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize, Southern Association for Women Historians

Exploring the charged topic of black health under slavery, Sharla Fett reveals how herbalism, conjuring, midwifery, and other African American healing practices became arts of resistance in the antebellum South.

Fett shows how enslaved men and women drew on African precedents to develop a view of health and healing that was distinctly at odds with slaveholders' property concerns. While white slaveowners narrowly defined slave health in terms of "soundness" for labor, slaves embraced a relational view of health that was intimately tied to religion and community. African American healing practices thus not only restored the body but also provided a formidable weapon against white objectification of black health.

Enslaved women played a particularly important role in plantation health culture: they made medicines, cared for the sick, and served as midwives in both black and white households. Their labor as health workers not only proved essential to plantation production but also gave them a basis of authority within enslaved communities. Not surprisingly, conflicts frequently arose between slave doctoring women and the whites who attempted to supervise their work, as did conflicts related to feigned illness, poisoning threats, and African-based religious practices. By examining the deeply contentious dynamics of plantation healing, Fett sheds new light on the broader power relations of antebellum American slavery.

About the Author

Sharla M. Fett is professor of history at Occidental College.
For more information about Sharla M. Fett, visit the Author Page.


"Incorporates and contributes to a wide range of existing scholarship on the history of medicine, the Atlantic world, and the religious, cultural, and social dimensions of the African American slave community."--Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Science

"This book fills in some of the missing links of American history in so many very important ways. Get it!!"--Journal of the National Medical Association

"This excellent study . . . fills a major void in the history of antebellum medicine and slave health. . . . Fett successfully unveils the numerous contributions slave women made to antebellum medicine."--Civil War Book Review

"Written in a lively and engaging style, this book is a unique overview of the complex interaction of white and slave medical care in the antebellum South. . . . [Fett] provides an important background to African American health since the end of slavery."--Library Journal

"Working Cities abounds with fresh insights into the practices and the beliefs about African American health held by masters, as well as slaves, and the relationship of health to broader interpretive debates in the political and social history of North American slavery. Students of the American South, of slavery, or of the African will not want to miss this fascinating and important study."--The Historian

"This is a groundbreaking work. By linking personal health and collective freedom, Fett redefines the study of slave health. . . . Compelling in argument and superb in scholarship and execution, Working Cures is a major contribution to the literature of the African American experience."--Journal of American History