“Dr. Buzzard” and rootwork are integrally connected and yet both terms defy concrete definitions. Katrina Hazzard-Donald offers this working definition of Hoodoo: “the indigenous, herbal, healing, and supernatural-controlling spiritual folk tradition of the African American in the United States” in her MoJo Workin:’ The Old African American Hoodoo System published by the University of Illinois Press in 2013.
 
Traditional West African folk medicine and magic were adapted by African American healers and conjurers on the plantation to fill a void of health care and to supplement Western religious practices. Root workers, sometimes called conjurers or witch doctors, used herbs, roots, spells, religious rites, and potions to influence outcomes. Often the root workers took a pseudonym when they became practitioners of hoodoo, voodoo, or conjuring. A variety of terms are used to connote rootwork: mojo, juju, conjure, black magic, hoodoo, and vodou among others.
 
Of the many root doctors and conjurers working in coastal South Carolina, the most famous was Stephney Robinson, 1885 -1947, of St. Helena Island, aka “Dr. Buzzard.” He was most noted for “chewing the root” during trials to confuse juries, prevent convictions, or minimize sentences. His law enforcement nemesis was Sheriff James Edwin McTeer, Jr.  It is said that Robinson learned the conjuring trade from his enslaved African grandfather. After his death, other members of his family adopted the name “Dr. Buzzard.” In more recent times, the term “Dr. Buzzard” has become a title indicating a root doctor rather than a reference to any particular person.
 
In this excerpt from “Ghosts of Beaufort County” from SC ETV (2010), Aunt Pearlie Sue (a.k.a. Anita Prather) recounts her own experience with root doctors:
 
 Compiled by Grace Morris Cordial, MLS, SL, CA, Beaufort District Collection Manager, Beaufort County Library (SC). The Beaufort District Collection is the special local history collection and archives unit of the Beaufort County Library (SC). Latest update 18 February 2021; Original Post: 29 July 2011.
 
Note: Lifespan of Dr. Buzzard is based on information given on his S.C. Death Certificate.

Online Resources:

“Broken Spell: Voodoo’s Heyday is has long passed, but the Gullah tradition continues to bewitch” by David Lauderdale, column in the Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, SC) on January 22, 2016 http://www.islandpacket.com/news/local/community/beaufort-news/article56093405.html

“The time a young teacher met a handsome gentleman… named Doctor Buzzard” by Ervena Faulkner, Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, SC), August 15, 2016 http://www.islandpacket.com/living/food-drink/made-with-love/article95767317.html

“Beaufort video game featuring Gullah-based boo hag to be presented at national convention” by Ashley Fahey, Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, SC), January 26, 2016 http://www.islandpacket.com/news/local/community/beaufort-news/article56682698.html

“Blue Root Real Estate” by Roger Pinckney http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/224/.

“Searching for Minerva,” by Rob Oldham, The South Magazine, October/November 2008 posted at http://roboldham.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/searching-for-minerva/.

“Root Doctors” by John J. Beck, Encyclopedia of North Carolina, edited by William S. Powell, 2006 http://ncpedia.org/root-doctors

Dr. Buzzard” entry in South Carolina Encyclopedia edited by Walter Edgar, 2006, p. 269

Stitt, Van J., Jr. “Root Doctors as Providers of Primary Care.” Journal of the National Medical Association 75, no. 7 (July 1983). 719–721. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2561490/.

Hyatt, Harry Middleton. Hoodoo – Conjuration – Witchcraft – Rootwork; Beliefs Accepted by Many Negroes and White Persons, These Being Orally Recorded Among Blacks and Whites. 5 vols. [Hannibal, MO: Printed by Western Pub.; distributed by American University  Bookstore, Washington, 1970] Internet Archive has all 5 volumes online: https://archive.org/details/HoodooConjurationWItchcraftRootwork

Yronwode, Catherine. “Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork: African American Magic.” http://www.luckymojo.com/hoodoohistory.html

Check out these materials from one of the SCLENDS Consortium Libraries:

White Woman Witch Doctor: Tales of the African Life of Rae Graham as told to Taffy Gould McCallum

Coffin Point by Baynard Woods

The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook by Denise Alvarado

Lowcountry Voodoo A to Z by Carole Marsh Longmeyer

Lowcountry Voodoo: Beginner’s Guide to Tales, Spells, and Boo Hags by Terrance Zepke

Blue Roots: African-American folk magic of the Gullah people by Roger Pinckney

African American Folk Healing by Stephanie Y. Mitchem

Dr. Buzzard” entry in South Carolina Encyclopedia edited by Walter Edgar, 2006, p. 269

God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man by Cornelia Walker Bailey with Christena Bledsoe, 2000.

Come to the Beaufort District Collection to see these items:

  • Dr. Buzzard [BDC Vertical File]
  • Root Doctors [BDC Vertical File]
  • McTeer, James Edwin, Jr., (1903-1979) [BDC Vertical File]
  • Gullahs–Folklore [BDC Vertical File]
  • Gullahs–Medicine [BDC Vertical File]
  • The McTeer family donated three scrapbooks that Sheriff McTeer compiled of newspaper and magazine articles about himself and rootwork to the Beaufort District Collection. Ask to see the preservation photocopies of the scrapbooks in the BDC.  [Please note: The amount of information on hoodoo is not extensive. The BDC does not have any of his rootwork artifacts in our holdings].

SC B MCTEER Coffin Point by Baynard Woods

SC 299.6 AND Conjure in African American Society [Microfiche] by Jeffrey E. Anderson.

SC 299.6 BEL Pattern, structure, and logic in Afro-American hoodoo performance [Microfiche] by Michael Edward Bell.

SC 299.675 HAZ 2013 Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald

SC 299.675 LON Lowcountry Voodoo A to Z by Carole Marsh Longmeyer

SC 299.675 ZEP Lowcountry Voodoo: Beginner’s Guide to Tales, Spells, and Boo Hags by Terrance Zepke

SC 305.8961 TRO An Afrocentric analysis of the transition and transformation of African medicine (root medicine) as spiritual practice among Gullah people of Lowcountry South Carolina [Microfiche] by Wendy Carmen Trott.

SC 398 MIT Hoodoo medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies by Faith Mitchell.

SC 398 PIN Blue Roots: African-American folk magic of the Gullah people by Roger Pinckney (BDC, BLU, HHI, LOB, STH)

SC 615.88 HEY Rootwork [Microfiche]: psychosocial aspects of malign magical and illness beliefs in a South Carolina Sea Islands community by Kathryn Wilson Heyer. (BDC only)

SC 975.73 SOUDr. Buzzard” entry in South Carolina Encyclopedia edited by Walter Edgar, 2006, p. 269 (ALL)

SC 975.8 BAI God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man by Cornelia Walker Bailey with Christena Bledsoe, 2000 (BDC, HHI, STH)

Note: Current hours and branch locations are posted on the Beaufort County Library’s (SC) website. 

Contact the Beaufort District Collection at (843) 255-6468 or e-mail bdc@bcgov.net for additional information about local history and archives relating to the people, places, and themes of the history, Gullah culture, archaeology, genealogy and natural environment of Beaufort County, Jasper County, and Hampton County in South Carolina.