Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Liza Williams

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Liza "Ma" Williams
Root Doctor Sketch
BornLiza Stevens
Savannah, Georgia
Other names"Ma"
EthnicityAfrican American
OccupationLaundry woman, Root Doctor
SpouseHenry Williams

Liza Williams was a laundry woman most of her life till the death of her whole family. At this point she retired and started to work as a Root doctor, also known as a Hoodoo doctor at the time.


Liza “Ma” Williams, formally known as Liza Stevens, was an African American woman born around 1840 in Savannah, Georgia, and lived past age 99. She worked as a washerwoman for most of her life, working in various hotels around Georgia. She married Henry Williams and had two kids in later life; however, the year of their marriage is uncertain. They all lived at 640 Lavinia Street, Savannah, Georgia, in an African American community of an unknown name.[1] Her old age and fragility after child birth forced her to retire from being a laundry woman. Her kids and her husband were her only source of income and care after she retired. Later in life, her husband died of old age. Not long after, she and all her kids caught a “bad disease”. She survived, but her kids did not. There is no record of what this disease was, just that it resembled cold like symptoms and grew worse. After the death of her kids and husband, she decided to make more of the cures she had created to help heal people from curses and disease. After a few years, people came at any time of the day asking her to heal them from physical conditions or from curses. When interviewed on how she knew this knowledge she would say, “Seems like I was just happened to be born with the knowledge.” Throughout her time as a root doctor she was accused of practicing witchcraft many times but only tried in court one time. She was never convicted of practicing witchcraft because she went to church every Sunday, and was found only to have removed curses.[2]

Examples of Cures[edit]

Liza Williams had many cures but here is a sample of her work.

Common materials used in her spells:[edit]

holy water, incense, fire, dragons blood, and sulfur, paired with the right words (probably bible verses)

Cure for the conjured:[edit]

• Ground up snakes and lizards. If it is a physical ailment, put a bag of it in your clothes. If it is a death curse, drink it in your whiskey or coffee. • Rattlesnake root, gin, and sulfur stirred 9 times each direction and punched 9 times then drunk. Never failed to cure. • Hell fire gun- When made it reverses the curse on the people who put the cure on yo

To ward off evil:[edit]

Make powder of sulfur, sugar, spice, incense, dragons blood. The power sprinkled is on all 4 corners of a room and makes a cross connecting the corners to protect a room it or you wear it (perfume, ect.)

Historical Context[edit]

Mass Execution of African Americans[edit]

Many leaders during the reconstruction era were afraid of losing power to African Americans which contributed to a rise in trials and executions of the African American population in the south. African Americans at this time were tried for various reasons such as witchcraft, practicing medicine without a license, instigating revolts, and treason. The purpose of these trials were to sentence leaders in African American communities to death or to disenfranchise them as a way for the Caucasian people at the time to remain in control by keeping African Americans from advancing in society. African American doctors at the time, were then becoming targets of mass executions, especially in Georgia, because they were “a challenge to established authority,” specifically if the doctors were not traditional licensed doctors. [3] This pattern of violence continued from the early reconstruction era that used execution through the courts, to the 1880’s that used threats of violence against at voting locations in the south.[4]

Racial Health Care Inequalities[edit]

Many of the people a doctor would help in an African American community at this time did not understand how medicine worked due to a lack of education or a lack of overall scientific knowledge at the time. The unequal education system lead to a deficiency of Licensed African American doctors and because “there was no law against removing spells, but practicing medicine without a license was illegal”, then being a root doctor was more attainable than a licensed doctor in most African American communities.[5] The word ‘witch’ or root doctor was often given to these unlicensed African American doctors. Many of those people were herbalists, or “specialists in the application of various medicinal plants and other remedies for common ailments”, misconstrued as witches because they often gave people things to ward off bad spirits as well as the physical care they provided.[6] These wards or cures are popular because many of the uneducated African American people turned toward misconceptions, like conjures and curses, as explanation for illness. It was common for African Americans to search out care givers that aligned with their own thoughts and race causing roles, like root doctors, to be necessary.[7] This puts more dependence on the often unapproved, and unlicensed practices of root doctors and less dependence on the modern medicine at the time.

  1. “Liza Williams in the U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995." Ancestry. Accessed October 02, 2017. http://search.ancestryinstitution.com/cgibin/sse.dll?_phsrc=nQW46&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&gss=angsg&new=1&rank=1&gsfn=liza&gsfn_x=1&gsln=williams&gsln_x=1&msypn__ftp=savannahgeorgia&msbdy=1836&catbucket=rstp&MSAV=0&uidh=yn9&pcat=ROOT_CATEGORY&h=692963503&dbid=2469&indiv=1&ml_rpos=6
  2. United States of America. The Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1938. By Virginia Thrope. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Life Histories. 1836. 3340-3348. Accessed October 25, 2017. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/700/rec/1.
  3. McLaughlin, Vance, and Paul H. Blackman. "Mass Legal Executions in Georgia." The Georgia Historical Quarterly 88, no. 1 (2004): 66-84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40584706.
  4. Bunn, Curtis. "6 Startling Ways Voter Disenfranchisement Against Black People From the Reconstruction Era Still Exists Today." Atlanta Black Star. March 30, 2015. Accessed October 25, 2017. http://atlantablackstar.com/2015/03/30/6-startling-ways-voter-disenfranchisement-against-black-people-from-the-reconstruction-era-still-exists-today/.
  5. Willett, Beverly. "LowCountry Root Doctors." South Magazine. December 01, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2017. http://www.southmag.com/Dec-Jan-2017/LowCountry-Root-Doctors/.
  6. Baer, Hans A. "Toward a Systematic Typology of Black Folk Healers." Phylon (1960-) 43, no. 4 (1982): 327-43. doi:10.2307/274755.
  7. Washington, Alethea H. "Rural Education." The Journal of Negro Education 7, no. 4 (1938): 587-96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2291815.