Inoculation was introduced to America by a slave

Onesimus was a slave for at least 11 years between 1706 thu 1717and was a medical pioneer. Few details are known about the birth of Onesimus, but it is assumed he was born in Africa,  in the late seventeenth century, although the precise date and place of his birth are unknown, before eventually landing in Boston. 

Onesimus first appears in the historical record in the diary of Cotton Mather, a prominent New England theologian and minister of Boston’s Old North Church. Reverend Mather notes in a diary entry for 13 December 1706 that members of his congregation purchased for him “a very likely Slave; a young Man who is a Negro of a promising aspect of temper” (Mather, vol. 1, 579). Mather named him Onesimus, after a biblical slave who escaped from his master, an early Christian named Philemon.

When asked if he’d ever had smallpox, Onesimus answered “Yes and No,” explaining that he had been inoculated with a small amount of smallpox, which had left him immune to the disease. Fascinated, Mather asked for details, which Onesimus provided, and showed him his scar. 

Onesimus told Mather about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. By extracting the material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to the healthy individual making them immune.

Onesimus was one of about a thousand persons of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony in the early 1700s, one-third of them in Boston. Many were indentured servants with rights comparable to those of white servants, though an increasing number of blacks–and blacks only–were classified as chattel and bound as slaves for life.

Excited, he investigated among other Africans in Boston and realized that it was a widespread practice; indeed, a slave could be expected to fetch a higher price with a scar on his arm, indicating that he was immune. 

Mather's writings suggest that, more than most of his contemporaries, he admired Africans, but he also accepted slavery, and had raised no objections when his congregation presented him with a young slave in 1706. 

What Onesimus thought of Mather’s opinions the historical record does not say, nor do we know much about his family life other than that he was married and had a son, Onesimulus, who died in 1714. Two years his son's death, Onesimus gave the clearest indication of his attitude toward his bondage by attempting to purchase his release from Mather. To do so, he gave his master money toward the purchase of another black youth, Obadiah, to serve in his place.

Mather probably welcomed the suggestion, since he reports in his diary for 31 August 1716 that Onesimus “proves wicked, and grows useless, Froward [ungovernable] and Immorigerous [rebellious].” Around that time Mather signed a document releasing Onesimus from his service “that he may Enjoy and Employ his whole Time for his own purposes and as he pleases” (Mather, vol. 2, 363). However, the document makes clear that Onesimus’s freedom was conditional on performing chores for the Mather family when needed, including shoveling snow, piling firewood, fetching water, and carrying corn to the mill. This contingent freedom was also dependent upon his returning a sum of five pounds allegedly stolen from Mather.

Little is known of Onesimus after he purchased his freedom, but in 1721 Cotton Mather used information he had learned five years earlier from his former slave to combat a devastating smallpox epidemic that was then sweeping Boston.

Considered extremely dangerous at the time, Cotton Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721 and over 240 people were inoculated. Opposed politically, religiously and medically in the United States and abroad, public reaction to the experiment put Mather and Boylston’s lives in danger despite records indicating that only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox. Boylston successfully variolate 300 patients with only six of them dying. By contrast, 1,000 of the 6,000 people who acquired smallpox naturally died during the same period.

In a 1716 letter to the Royal Society of London, Mather proposed “ye Method of Inoculation” as the best means of curing smallpox and noted that he had learned of this process from “my Negro-Man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow” (Winslow, 33). Onesimus explained that he had

undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding, That it was often used among [Africans] and whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.” (Winslow, 33)

Reports of similar practices in Turkey further persuaded Mather to mount a public inoculation campaign. Most white doctors rejected this process of deliberately infecting a person with smallpox–now called variolation–in part because of their misgivings about African medical knowledge. Public and medical opinion in Boston was strongly against both Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, the only doctor in town willing to perform inoculations; one opponent even threw a grenade into Mather’s home. A survey of the nearly six thousand people who contracted smallpox between 1721 and 1723 found, however, that Onesimus, Mather, and Boylston had been right. Only 2 percent of the six hundred Bostonians inoculated against smallpox died, while 14 percent of those who caught the disease but were not inoculated succumbed to the illness. Boylston traveled to London in 1724. There he published his results and was elected to the Royal Society in 1726.

Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation to the United States and variolation remained the most effective means of treating the disease until the development of vaccination by Edward Jenner in 1796.

It is unclear when or how Onesimus died, but his legacy is unambiguous. His knowledge of variolation gives the lie to one justification for enslaving Africans, namely, white Europeans’ alleged superiority in medicine, science, and technology. This bias made the smallpox epidemic of 1721 more deadly than it need have been. Bostonians and other Americans nonetheless adopted the African practice of inoculation in future smallpox outbreaks.

Further Reading

Herbert, Eugenia W. “Smallpox Inoculation in Africa.” Journal of African History 16 (1975).
Mather, Cotton. Diary (1912).
Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984).
Winslow, Ola. A Destroying Angel: The Conquest of Smallpox in Colonial Boston (1974).

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Compiled under fair use exemption, from material originally published by Harvard's Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research and PBS.

Cookie Thornton – unjust reaction to an unjust system

Today is the ninth anniversary of everything that can go wrong when a system of justice seems unjust or predatory to an individual on the edge. 

On February 7, 2008, Cookie Thornton, a well-respected and widely loved figure, who was active in local charities, fired shots during a Kirkwood city council meeting, that killed five, including two police officers, and wounded two others; one of the two wounded victims, the mayor, later died. Thornton was shot and killed by police the night of the incident. 

Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, was a lifelong resident of Meacham Park, an unincorporated, mostly African American community. In 1992, Kirkwood annexed the Meacham Park area. Upon annexation, the municipal codes of Kirkwood became the law for Meacham Park, which had previously lacked municipal codes.

St. Louis Magazine published a four-part series about the Kirkwood Shootings, part one of the series, "Why did Cookie Kill?" starts off with:

"In the initial shock, it seemed simple: Cookie Thornton had gone crazy. Then people started commenting, and it seemed even simpler: A black man had gotten fed up with bigotry and taken revenge. Then explanations started coming, and nothing was simple at all"

The complaints that surfaced during the Ferguson Protest about municipal courts were the same sort of things Cookie Thornton complained about. I didn't know Mr. Thornton, so I can't speak to his mental state, but every person has their breaking point. Mr. Thornton pleaded for help for years including at city council meetings about tickets and felt he was being treated unfairly, but it appears he was ignored. If someone had simply helped him better understand the rules of court, his trial de novo appeal rights, and the right to a jury trial, I wonder if he would have had a better outcome.

Claims of racism

Cookie Thornton accused the government of Kirkwood of racial discrimination and had been tied up in lawsuits with the city for nearly a decade. After the shooting, those in the community described Thornton as having snapped, gone insane or gone to war.

Cookie Thornton holding a protest sign that reads, "Kirkwood Missouri Slave Tax"

Excessive Municipal Fines and Court Cost

In 1996, Thornton had begun receiving citations from Kirkwood for violations of city codes. In June 1998, he pleaded guilty to six violations; and agreed to a five-phase plan to bring his property and his paving business into conformance with city codes within two years.

Thornton filed for bankruptcy in December 1999. During the bankruptcy process, he was put on a plan to get out of debt: he would pay $4,425 a month for five years. But Thornton stopped making the payments within four months and moved the portion of his business that had for a while occupied a rental property in a nearby commercially zoned area, back into his residentially zoned neighborhood.

Thornton never paid any of the fines from the 2001 and 2002 Kirkwood code violation cases. Thornton, despite having no education, training or experience in the practice of law, acted as his own attorney. The City of Kirkwood said in a state court memorandum in 2003, that by May 2002, Thornton had pled or was found guilty of more than 100 of 114 charges.

In 2005, the Missouri Court of Appeals opinion dismissing his suit against Kirkwood and Ken Yost for malicious prosecution and civil rights violations termed his brief "largely incomprehensible". After several years of the lawsuits, he declined an offer from the city to let his fines remain unpaid in exchange for dropping his last lawsuit against the city and no longer disrupting council meetings.

Residents speak out

The shooting cast a spotlight on the long-standing tension between Kirkwood and Meacham Park. 

Linda Lockhart had grown up in St. Louis, and her family moved back in 1998 after living in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Linda Lockart who is black, and her husband, who is white, bought a house in a Kirkwood subdivision near a country club.

Linda Lockhart, right and her husband, left

Lockhart and her husband were given a copy of the neighborhood Trust Agreement and Indenture of Restrictions, which laid out neighborhood rules regarding issues like yard maintenance and structure standards.

It also said this: “That no building shall at any time be occupied by Negroes or Malays, except in the capacity of bona fide servants or employees.”

When their children started going to Kirkwood High School, she said, both the subtle and the overt racism became even more apparent. “It was just the most painful experience we had ever been through,” Lockhart recalled.

“Nobody condoned Cookie,” Lockhart said. “It was wrong. But we understood why he felt that way.”

The Meacham Park Neighborhood Association (MPNA) met the afternoon following the shooting, February 8. More than 100 people, including Thornton's mother, and a "procession of ministers" who spoke at the meeting. Many spoke sympathetically of Thornton. Elder Harry Jones of Men and Women of Faith Ministries said

"This is something that took place over time, and perhaps it could have been avoided. There always has been a great divide between Kirkwood and Meacham Park."

Thornton's mother spoke last, saying

"We've got to do things the Bible way. I'm sad that this happened."

A blog entry that same day from a minister who used to live and work in Kirkwood provides some background about the relationship between Meacham Park and Kirkwood:

People who had lived in [Meacham Park] for generations were paid to move out so that Wal Mart could move in. [They] were made promises about how the money the city made from Wal Mart would be given to improve the living conditions in Meacham Park. When I met with the MPNA, there were residents who had been organizing and feeling frustrated for quite a while. They felt that the city officials were not following through on their promises and that the Meacham Park residents made a grave mistake in trusting the city officials….we were able to get our hands on some financial documents that flat out proved that the city promised money that they had not paid but there were legal loopholes that seemed insurmountable without a sea of money to devote to legal fees. When I stepped down from my work with Meacham Park, I knew that the frustrations were far from resolved.

In the end, it's always about the money, isn't it? It looks like the only reason Kirkwood was interested in annexing Meacham Park was to profit from a Wal-Mart development that certainly came with other developments. They displaced poor black residents from Meacham Park seemingly without any inconvenience to Kirkwood residents.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Portions republished from a previous post.

Charles Hamilton Houston – The Man Who Killed Jim Crow

One of the most influential figures in African American life between the two world wars was Charles Hamilton Houston. A scholar and lawyer, he dedicated his life to freeing his people from the bonds of racism.  Houston played a significant role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws, which earned him the title "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow".

Charles Houston grew up in a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. His father, William Le Pre Houston, was an attorney, and his mother, Mary Hamilton Houston, a seamstress. 

Charles Houston with his Father and Mother

Houston enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was one of six valedictorians in 1915. Determined to be a lawyer like his father, Houston taught English for a couple of years back in Washington in order to save enough money to attend Harvard Law School. Houston noticed while teaching, that blacks had not advanced meaningfully in the past 20 years and were becoming increasingly victimized by segregation in the public and private sectors.

As the U.S. entered World War I, Houston joined the then racially segregated U.S. Army as an officer and was sent to France. Houston was an artillery officer in France. He witnessed and endured the racial prejudice inflicted on black soldiers. These encounters fueled his determination to use the law as an instrument of social change. 

Lieutenant Houston in Artillery Unit, World War

Houston returned to the U.S. in 1919 and attended Harvard Law School. He was a member of the Harvard Law Review and graduated cum laude. Houston was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He received his JD from Harvard in 1923 and that same year was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship to study at the University of Madrid. When he returned to Washington to join his father’s law firm, he began taking on civil rights cases. He was admitted to the Washington, DC bar in 1924.

William Houston practiced law in Washington, D.C., for more than four decades, and taught legal office management at Howard University’s law school.

Howard University School of Law: Preparing for Struggle

Mordecai Johnson, the first African-American president of Howard University, named Charles Houston to head the law school in 1929. Houston brought an ambitious vision to the school, he set out to train attorneys who would become civil rights advocates. At the time, courses were offered only part-time and in the evening. Houston created an accredited, full-time program with an intensified civil rights curriculum. In Houston's capacity as Dean, he had a direct influence on nearly one-quarter of all the black lawyers in the United States, including former student Thurgood Marshall. Houston transformed a second-rate law school into a first class institution that churned out generations of brilliant black lawyers. His determination to train world-class lawyers who would lead the fight against racial injustice gave African Americans an invaluable weapon in the civil rights struggle.

Howard Law School Course Syllabus

Houston diversified the course offerings and made sure students received more rigorous training for work in the field of civil rights. 

This 1931 memorandum from Houston asked all law school staff to provide an overview of their courses and stated his intention to strengthen the curriculum.

Original HU Law School Building

This row house in downtown Washington was the home of the Howard University law school when Charles Houston was dean. He strengthened the school’s academic standards and instilled a sense of social mission. Under Houston, the law school graduated a group of highly effective civil rights lawyers, the most illustrious of whom was Thurgood Marshall.
Professors at the law school plan a year of coursework.

Houston knew many of the foremost legal minds of his day and brought them to Howard as program advisors and speakers.

In this photograph he poses with Mordecai Johnson, president of the university, and Clarence Darrow, the famed lawyer who defended the theory of evolution in the Scopes trial in 1925.

Charles Houston arguing a case in court

Houston continued to argue cases in court and work for equality in the legal community during his years as dean of Howard’s law school. When the American Bar Association refused to admit African American attorneys, he helped found the National Bar Association, an all-black organization, in 1925.

A New Legal Team at the NAACP

In 1934 Charles Houston left the Howard University School of Law to head the Legal Defense Committee of the NAACP in New York City. Seeking out bright, dedicated attorneys to join the mission, he built an interracial staff that defended victims of racial injustice. Among the lawyers recruited was Thurgood Marshall, Houston’s star student from Howard’s law school.

In July 1938 policy disagreements and health problems caused Houston to relinquish the leadership of the NAACP legal committee to Thurgood Marshall. Summing up Houston’s contribution to the struggle against segregation and racism, Marshall later remarked, “We owe it all to Charlie.”

Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Houston's plan to attack and defeat Jim Crow segregation by demonstrating the inequality in the "separate but equal" doctrine from the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision as it pertained to public education in the United States was the masterstroke that brought about the landmark Brown decision. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939), Houston argued that it was unconstitutional for Missouri to exclude blacks from the state’s university law school when, under the “separate but equal” provision, no comparable facility for blacks existed within the state.

Houston’s efforts to dismantle the legal theory of “separate but equal” came to fruition after his death in 1950 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which prohibited segregation in public schools.


In the documentary "The Road to Brown", Hon. Juanita Kidd Stout described Houston's strategy, 

"When he attacked the "separate but equal" theory his real thought behind it was that "All right, if you want it separate but equal, I will make it so expensive for it to be separate that you will have to abandon your separateness." And so that was the reason he started demanding equalization of salaries for teachers, equal facilities in the schools and all of that." 

Houston took a movie camera across South Carolina to document the inequalities between African-American and white education.

Then, as Special Counsel to the NAACP Houston dispatched Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill, and other young attorneys to work to equalize teachers' salaries. Houston led a team of African-American attorneys who used similar tactics to bring to an end the exclusion of African-Americans from juries across the South.

Charles Houston was one of the most important civil rights attorneys in American history. A lawyer, in his view, was an agent for social change—“either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” 

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Much of the content above has been republished under license from the Smithsonian and Wikipedia

Was the Real Lone Ranger a Black Man?

He's been called the "real Lone Ranger" by some and an American hero by many, Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. During his long career, he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons. He shot and killed fourteen outlaws in self-defense.

Bill O'Reilly while appearing on the Tonight show, tells the story of Bass Reeves. Reeves was an escaped slave who became the first black U.S. Marshal. The white TV character, "The Lone Ranger", portrayed by Clayton Moore was based on Reeves.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1838. He was named after his grandfather, Basse Washington. Bass Reeves and his family were slaves of Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. When Bass was eight (about 1846), William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, near Sherman in the Peters Colony. Bass Reeves may have served William Steele Reeves' son, Colonel George R. Reeves, who was a sheriff and legislator in Texas. He was a one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives until his death from rabies in 1882.

During the American Civil War, Bass parted company with George Reeves, perhaps "because Bass beat up George after a dispute in a card game." Bass Reeves fled north into the Indian Territory. He lived with the Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek Indians, learning their languages, until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1865.

As a freedman, Reeves moved to Arkansas and farmed near Van Buren. He married Nellie Jennie from Texas, with whom he had eleven children. Reeves and his family farmed until 1875, when Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory.

Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal, directing him to hire 200 deputy U.S. Marshals. Fagan had heard about Reeves, who knew the Indian Territory and could speak several Indian languages. He recruited him as a deputy; Reeves was the first black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River.

Reeves was initially assigned as a Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which had responsibility also for the Indian Territory. He served there until 1893. That year he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas for a short while. In 1897 he was transferred again, serving at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Indian Territory.

Reeves worked for thirty-two years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory, and became one of Judge Parker's most valued deputies. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions. Once he had to arrest his own son for murder.

His son, Bennie Reeves, was charged with the murder of his wife. Deputy Marshal Reeves was disturbed and shaken by the incident but allegedly demanded the responsibility of bringing Bennie to justice. Bennie was eventually tracked and captured, tried, and convicted. He served his time in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before being released and living the rest of his life as a responsible and model citizen.

Bass Reeves was falsely accused of murdering a posse cook and served two years in jail before being acquitted in a trial before Judge Parker. Reeves was represented by former United States Attorney W.H.H. Clayton, who was a colleague and friend.

In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and pistol, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves claimed to have arrested over 3,000 felons. He is said to have shot and killed fourteen outlaws to defend his own life.

bass reeves police
Bass Reeves (front row left with cane) as member of Muskogee Police Department

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass Reeves, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee, Oklahoma police department He served for two years before he became ill and had to retire. Reeves' health began to fail, and he died of Bright's disease (nephritis) in 1910. He was a great-uncle of Paul L. Brady, who was the first black man appointed as a Federal Administrative Law Judge (in 1972).

Similarities Between the Fictional Lone Ranger and Bass Reeves

  • Reeves rode a white horse throughout almost all of his career, at one point riding a light grey one as well.
  • The Lone Ranger's last name was "Reid" very similar to Reeves.
  • He preferred to bring outlaws in alive to face justice rather than kill them, even though many were wanted dead or alive.
  • Reeves was described as a “master of disguises” and used those disguises to track down wanted criminals
  • Reeves’ companion was a Native American posse man and tracker who he often rode with.
  • Reeves kept and gave out silver coins as a personal trademark of sorts, instead of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets. Reeves used the coins win over the people wherever he found himself working and collecting bounties. A visit from Bass Reeves meant a dangerous criminal captured and a silver coin if you were lucky.
  • A large number of the criminals Reeves captured were sent to the federal prison in Detroit. The Lone Ranger radio show originated in 1933 on WXYZ in Detroit where the legend of Bass Reeves was famous.

The Bass Reeves Legacy Monument, mounted on its base at Ross Pendergraft Park, Fort Smith, ArkansasThe Bass Reeves Legacy Monument, mounted on its base at Ross Pendergraft Park, Fort Smith, Arkansas

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Imhotep – The Real Father of Medicine

The Greek physician Hippocrates is known as the father of modern medicine, but a Black Egyptian, Imhotep was practicing medicine and writing on the subject 2,200 years before Hippocrates. Were Ancient Egyptians Black?

In ancient Egypt, there was a ‘Medicine God’ known as Imhotep. Imhotep was a real person that lived in service to a pharaoh during the third dynasty. Imhotep was a polymath (a genius in multiple subjects). He excelled as a mathematician, priest, a writer, a doctor, and he founded the Egyptian version of the studies of architecture and astronomy. He is credited with building the first pyramid created entirely with stone by human hands – the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, near Memphis.

Egyptians, not Greeks were true fathers of medicine

The research team from the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at The University of Manchester discovered the evidence in medical papyri written in 1,500BC – 1,000 years before Hippocrates was born. Imhotep writings are generally considered the source that the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text, which contains almost 100 anatomical terms and describes 48 injuries and their treatment. The text may have been a military field manual and dates to c. 1600 BCE, long after Imhotep's time, but is thought to be a copy of his earlier work.

Edwin Smith Papyrus - believed written by Imhotep 1,000 years before Hippocrates was born
Edwin Smith Papyrus – believed written 1,000 years before Hippocrates was born and based on previous writings of Imhotep

Scientists examining documents dating back 3,500 years say they have found proof that the origins of modern medicine lie in ancient Egypt and not with Hippocrates and the Greeks.

"Classical scholars have always considered the ancient Greeks, particularly Hippocrates, as being the fathers of medicine but the KNH research team findings suggest that the ancient Egyptians were practicing a credible form of pharmacy and medicine much earlier," said Dr. Jackie Campbell.

"When KNH compared the ancient remedies against modern pharmaceutical protocols and standards, they found the prescriptions in the ancient documents not only compared with pharmaceutical preparations of today but that many of the remedies had therapeutic merit."

The medical documents, which were first discovered in the mid-19th century, showed that ancient Egyptian physicians treated wounds with honey, resins, and metals known to be antimicrobial.

Imhotep is also touted as being the only ascended mortal in the Pharaonic pantheon— an advisor to kings, builder of pyramids, and paragon of knowledge who rose to become the god of healing and science. For 3000 years he was worshiped as a god in Greece and Rome. Early Christians worshiped him as the "Prince of Peace."

Ancient Statue of Imhotep, Louvre Museum
Ancient Statue of Imhotep, Louvre Museum

Imhotep, in ancient Egyptian, is translated to mean “the voice (or mouth) of Im”; however, there is no record of a god in Egypt called ‘Im.’ Many are familiar with the “I AM”: EXO 3:14 

“And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.”

Unlike the Egyptian god, Thoth who is not generous with his knowledge, Imhotep insisted that knowledge was only useful if it was applied for the good of all. His most important doctrine is that knowledge, science, and magic should be used to help humanity. Magic and the use of herbalism were the first forms of ‘medicine’ though Imhotep practiced surgery and cured people from over 200 diseases – ailments as varied as tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout, and arthritis. He practiced dentistry and could look at the hair, nails, skin, and tongue to make diagnoses.

Imhotep was practicing medicine and writing on the subject 2,200 years before Hippocrates, the so-called Father of Modern Medicine was born. Imhotep is generally considered the author of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text, which contains almost 100 anatomical terms and describes 48 injuries and their treatment. The text may have been a military field manual and dates to c. 1600 BCE, long after Imhotep's time, but is thought to be a copy of his earlier work.

The team also discovered prescriptions for laxatives of castor oil and colocynth and bulk laxatives of figs and bran. Other references show that colic was treated with hyoscyamus, which is still used today, and that cumin and coriander were used as intestinal carminatives.

Further evidence showed that musculoskeletal disorders were treated with rubefacients to stimulate blood flow and poultices to warm and soothe. They used celery and saffron for rheumatism, which are currently topics of pharmaceutical research, and pomegranate was used to eradicate tapeworms, a remedy that remained in clinical use until 50 years ago.

"Many of the ancient remedies we discovered survived into the 20th century and, indeed, some remain in use today, albeit that the active component is now produced synthetically," said Dr. Campbell.

"Other ingredients endure and acacia is still used in cough remedies while aloes forms a basis to soothe and heal skin conditions."

Fellow researcher Dr. Ryan Metcalfe is now developing genetic techniques to investigate the medicinal plants of ancient Egypt. He has designed his research to determine which modern species the ancient botanical samples are most related to.

"This may allow us to determine a likely point of origin for the plant while providing additional evidence for the trade routes, purposeful cultivation, trade centers or places of treatment," said Dr. Metcalfe.

"The work is inextricably linked to state-of-the-art chemical analyses used by Metcalfe's colleague Judith Seath, who specializes in the essential oils and resins used by the ancient Egyptians."

Professor Rosalie David, Director of the KNH Centre, said: "These results are very significant and show that the ancient Egyptians were practicing a credible form of pharmacy long before the Greeks.

Were Ancient Egyptians Black?

Legal research animated 250 x 250

European colonialism has distorted or destroyed the history and historical accounts of Africa. In order to justify the enslavement of African people, a false narrative was promoted that Africa was a backward land, full of barbaric primitive people with no history. It would have been difficult to justify slavery if the world knew about the great empires and accomplishments of various groups of African people.

Last Judgement of Hunefer, 1275 b.c.e., papyrus, Thebes, Egypt (British Museum)
Last Judgement of Hunefer, 1275 b.c.e., papyrus, Thebes, Egypt (British Museum)

Growing up, I didn't even realize Egypt was on the continent of Africa, it was never mentioned. The ancient Egyptians always painted themselves with dark skin and they literally left images of themselves carved in stone with what are today considered black facial features.

The Ramsess II Statues at Main Entrance to Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt
The Ramses II Statues at Main Entrance to Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt

Hollywood through propaganda has contributed to the distortion of black history, such as depicting Egyptians as white or at least anything other than black. Charleston Heston portrayed Moses and Elizebeth Taylor portrayed Cleopatra.

The only black images that were ever presented in media concerning Egypt were those of slaves. Unfortunately, even the greatness of Imhotep has been distorted and fictionalized as an evil character in the movies "The Mummy" in 1932 play by Boris Karloff and in the 1999 version played by Arnold Vosloo. A clip of Vosloo's role as Imhotep is below.

Eye Witness Accounts of Sphinx 

Count Constantin de Volney, a French nobleman, philosopher, historian, orientalist, and politician, embarked on a journey to the East in late 1782 and reached Ottoman Egypt where he spent nearly seven months. Constantin de Volney was troubled much by the institution of slavery. His expressed opinion that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans much departed from the typical European view of the late eighteenth century, but it gave many people cause for reflection.

During his visit to Egypt, he expressed amazement that the Egyptians – whose civilization was greatly admired in Europe – were not White!

"All the Egyptians," wrote de Volney, "have a bloated face, puffed-up eyes, flat nose, thick lips – in a word, the true face of the mulatto. I was tempted to attribute it to the climate, but when I visited the Sphinx, its appearance gave me the key to the riddle.

On seeing that head, typically Negro in all its features, I remembered the remarkable passage where Herodotus says:

'As for me, I judge the Colchians to be a colony of the Egyptians because, like them, they are black with woolly hair…

"When I visited the Sphinx, I could not help thinking that the figure of that monster furnished the true solution to the enigma (of how the modern Egyptians came to have their 'mulatto' appearance) "In other words, the ancient Egyptians were true Negroes of the same type as all native-born Africans. That being so, we can see how their blood, mixed for several centuries with that of the Greeks and Romans, must have lost the intensity of its original color, while retaining nonetheless the imprint of its original mold.

"Just think," de Volney declared incredulously, "that this race of Black men, today our slave and the object of our scorn, is the very race to which we owe our arts, sciences, and even the use of speech! Just imagine, finally, that it is in the midst of people who call themselves the greatest friends of liberty and humanity that one has approved the most barbarous slavery, and questioned whether Black men have the same kind of intelligence as whites!

"In other words the ancient Egyptians were true Negroes of the same stock as all the autochthonous peoples of Africa and from the datum one sees how their race, after some centuries of mixing with the blood of Romans and Greeks, must have lost the full blackness of its original color but retained the impress of its original mould."

Sixteen years after Count de Volney visit, another Frenchman, Dominique-Vivant Denon gave a similar description of the Sphinx.

Dominique-Vivant Denon was a diplomat and artist who Napoleon invited to join the Egyptian expedition in 1798. Denon was the first European artist to discover and draw the temples and ruins at Thebes, Esna, Edfu, and Philae. Many of us have heard the disputed tale that a cannonball fired by Napoleon’s soldiers hit the nose of the Sphinx and caused it to break off. Many believe that Napoleon shot off the nose and lips of the Sphinx because he did not like its black features. Denon made the following statement about the Sphinx in the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure

"Though its proportions are colossal, the outline is pure and graceful; the expression of the head is mild, gracious, and tranquil; the character is African, but the mouth, and lips of which are thick, has a softness and delicacy of execution truly admirable; it seems real life and flesh." 

Denon's drawing of the Sphinx show it with a broad nose and thick lips, clearly African features.
Denon's drawing of the Sphinx show it with a broad nose and thick lips, clearly depict African features.

Racial identity based on skin color is a relatively modern concept created during the slave trade. Prior to the 16th century, people did not view themselves in the context of black verse white, so the ancient Egyptians or any other group of ancient people would not have viewed themselves from the perspective of being black or white. 

It is estimated that the average person did not travel more than 30 miles from home during their lifetime, so it's hard to imagine that the ancient Egyptian people were a mixture of European and African people. People assume that the current population is representative of what the population looked like during ancient times. The United States is a predominately white country, however, if you were to arrive on this continent 500 years ago, you wouldn't have found any white people. They came later, decimated the indigenous native population, took over their land and claimed it as their own. 

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Woman whose accusation led to lynching of Emmett Till admits she lied

Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American teenager lynched after a Mississippi woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, claimed he made "advances" on her. 

His killers were acquitted of kidnapping and murder by an all-white, all-male jury. Then, free of further legal jeopardy, they admitted to it. Their casual indifference and impunity helped catalyze the civil rights movement. The Emmett Till case highlights the negative aspect of jury nullification

The Murder Of Emmett Till (The Full Documetary)

Many people believe Emmett Till's murder was a pivotal event motivating the civil rights movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took place later that same year in December.

Last week, we learned Donham admitted she lied about Till's actions.

Carolyn Bryant, right, testified at her husband's trial, Roy Bryant, left, that Emmett had grabbed her and been sexually aggressive. Her husband was acquitted of murder after little over an hour's deliberation by an all-white, all-male jury. He later admitted the brutal killing

In a new book, The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster), Timothy Tyson, a Duke University senior research scholar, reveals that Carolyn—in 2007, at age 72—confessed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. “That part’s not true,” she told Tyson, about her claim that Till had made verbal and physical advances on her. As for the rest of what happened that evening in the country store, she said she couldn’t remember. (Carolyn is now 82, and her current whereabouts have been kept secret by her family.)

Emmett Till, left, was 14 when he was lynched and murdered by Roy Bryant and his half-brother John Milam after allegedly whistling at Bryant's 21-year-old wife Carolyn. Till's mother Mamie Till-Mobley insisted on an open casket for her son's funeral, right, so America could see what had been done to him.
Emmett Till, left, was 14 when he was lynched and murdered by Roy Bryant and his half-brother John Milam after allegedly whistling at Bryant's 21-year-old wife Carolyn. Till's mother Mamie Till-Mobley insisted on an open casket for her son's funeral, right, so America could see what had been done to him.

The New York Times adds that "As a matter of narrow justice, it makes little difference; true or not, her claims did not justify any serious penalty, much less death."

… among thousands of lynchings of black people, this one looms large in the country’s tortured racial history, taught in history classes to schoolchildren, and often cited as one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement.

Photographs in Jet Magazine of Emmett’s gruesomely mutilated body — at a funeral that his mother insisted have an open coffin, to show the world what his killers had done — had a galvanizing effect on black America. … The Justice Department began an investigation into the Emmett Till lynching in 2004, Emmett’s body was exhumed for an autopsy, and the F.B.I. rediscovered the long-missing trial transcript. But in 2007, a grand jury decided not to indict Ms. Donham, or anyone else, as an accomplice in the murder.

“I was hoping that one day she would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction,” said Wheeler Parker, 77, a cousin of Emmett’s who lives near Chicago. “It’s important to people understanding how the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it. It really speaks to history, it shows what black people went through in those days.”

Till’s cousin Wheeler Parker who was with him the night of the incident – and when he was taken from his bed to his death, said: ‘My family thinks she’s trying to make money but being a preacher, I think she is trying to find a way to go heaven now.’

In this rarely seen photograph, Emmett Till, left, and his cousin Wheeler Parker, back right, are pictured on their bicycles. Rev Parker estimates the picture, which also captures family friend Joe B. Williams, was taken around 1949 to 1950

If conscience is the fear of hell, at least she knows where she's going. We have additional information about Emmett Till including another video on our history page.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Republished with permission under license from, BoingBoing with edits and additions.

Mansa Musa of Mali – Richest Man in History

Most people don't realize that the richest man in recorded history was a Black African King, Musa of Mali. Mansa Musa came to power in 1311, when Abu Bakr II temporarily handed the throne over to Musa and set off on an expedition to a what many believe is now known as the Americas. Abu Bakr II never returned from his voyage.

Musa Keita I (c. 1280 – c. 1337) was the tenth Mansa, which translates as "sultan" (king) or "emperor", of the wealthy West African Mali Empire. At the time of Musa's rise to the throne, the Malian Empire consisted of territory formerly belonging to the Ghana Empire in present-day southern Mauritania and in Mali and the immediate surrounding areas.

Musa held many titles, including Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, Conqueror of Ghana, and at least a dozen others. It is said that Mansa Musa had conquered 24 cities, each with surrounding districts containing villages and estates, during his reign. He is known to have been enormously wealthy; reported as being inconceivably rich by contemporaries, "It has been estimated that Mansa Musa was worth between $400 billion and more than $4.6 trillion dollars when adjusted to U.S. dollars. There’s really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth, Mansa Musa controlled more than half the world's supply of gold and salt production, then a very valuable commodity. 

The Catalan Atlas (1375) depicting Mansa Musa holding goldThe Catalan Atlas (1375) depicting Mansa Musa holding gold

Mansa Musa was the first Muslim ruler in West Africa to make the nearly four thousand mile journey to Mecca. Preparing for the expedition took years and in 1324 Musa began his pilgrimage with an entourage of tens of thousands of soldiers, thousands of richly dressed servants, escorts, and supporters who carried 500 heralds bearing gold staffs. Mansa Musa gained the world's attention during his pilgrimage to Meca which made the world aware of the stupendous wealth of Mali.

Musa made generous donations to the poor and to charitable organizations as well as the rulers of the lands his entourage crossed. According to Arab historians, Mansa Musa spent so much gold during his pilgrimage that the value of gold declined and it took about 12 years for the price of gold to stabilize. 

Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage increased Islamic education in Mali by adding mosques, libraries, and universities. The awareness of Musa by other Islamic leaders brought increased commerce and scholars, poets, and artisans, making Timbuktu one of the leading cities in the Islamic world. In the 14th century, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, and ivory was five times bigger than London and was the richest city in the world. Mansa Musa ordered the building of the Djingarey Ber Mosque as a symbol of his kingdom’s prestige. The mosque was completed in 1327 and is the oldest in Timbuktu.

Djingarey Ber Mosque2
Djingarey Ber Mosque in Mali, completed in 1327

Abu Bakr II

Abu Bakr ii was an African emperor who ruled Mali in the 14th century and may have discovered America years before Christopher Columbus. The only known written account of Abu Bakr II is from the account of Chihab al-Umari, an Arab historian, born in Damascus. Al-Umari visited Cairo after Mansa Musa stopped there during his historic hajj to Mecca, and recorded a conversation between Musa and his host, Abu'l Hasan Ali ibn Amir Habib. One English translation of al-Umari’s conversation with Musa is as follows,

“So Abubakar equipped 200 ships filled with men and the same number equipped with gold, water, and provisions, enough to last them for years…they departed and a long time passed before anyone came back. Then one ship returned and we asked the captain what news they brought. 

He said, 'Yes, Oh Sultan, we travelled for a long time until there appeared in the open sea a river with a powerful current…the other ships went on ahead, but when they reached that place, they did not return and no more was seen of them…As for me, I went about at once and did not enter the river.' 

The Sultan got ready 2,000 ships, 1,000 for himself and the men whom he took with him, and 1,000 for water and provisions. He left me to deputies for him and embarked on the Atlantic Ocean with his men. That was the last we saw of him and all those who were with him. And so, I became king in my own right.”

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Tired of the Same Black History Lessons?

Today begins Black History Month and every February it's as if the same lessons are being replayed over and over again. Public schools will talk about slavery, MLK, the civil rights movement, Frederick Douglass and few other very well known individuals. As important as these people are to our history, black history contains many unsung heroes that need to be talked about and remembered.

Until the movie "Hidden Figures" most people had no idea that a group of brilliant African-American women worked at NASA, and served as the brains behind one of the nation's greatest moments. How many African-American's would have been inspired to become mathematicians, engineers, and scientist if they had known about these women?

Black history month is celebrated in the United States and Canada in February, but in Great Britain, it is celebrated in October. Unfortunately, it seems black history in England is taught much the same as it is in the United States.

Frustrated with the teaching of Black History Month in schools, a dissatisfied student, Samuel King, communicates his disappointment to his teacher that Black History Month isn't taught with much depth or with much pride in schools. Samuel criticizes his teacher, before arguing that education in school does little to satisfy his thirst for knowledge of influential people in Black history who seem to be missing from the lessons. He states, "There seems to be a lot you haven't told us, and you shut down and hold back on the bold ones who stand against the way you're trying to mould us"

European colonialism destroyed most of Africa's historical buildings, monuments and distorted its history. For example, in the fourteenth century, Timbuktu, in West Africa was five bigger than London and was the richest city in the world. Europeans stole much of Africa's great wealth and resources including its people. 

The Beginning Negro History Week 

"Negro History Week," created in 1926 in the U.S., was the precursor to Black History Month.  Historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History designated the second week of February to celebrate because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14, dates Black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century.

"If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization."

United States: Black History Month (1976)

In 1976 as part of the United States Bicentennial, the informal expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government. President Gerald Ford spoke in regards to this, urging Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."

On 21 February 2016, 106-year-old Washington D.C. resident and school volunteer Virginia McLaurin visited the White House as part of Black History Month. When asked by the president why she was there, Virginia said, "A black president. A black wife. And I’m here to celebrate black history. That’s what I’m here for."

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series