Remembering Saluda’s Past: Phoebe Sullivan–black faith healer
Time has taken over much of the places Phoebe Sullivan once knew in her lifetime: it marches on, vines thick, houses crumbling, the past a distant memory. Yet her vivid legend lives on.
Long ago, in a time when blacks in America had little power or money, Phoebe Cheek Sullivan overcame the odds: she was black and a woman; born in poverty to former slaves in Laurens County, S.C. in 1864, a year before the Civil War ended. Women of any race did not have the right to vote or own property.
Phoebe, while illiterate, was raised with a deeply religious background. At the age of 9, she experienced a life-changing vision that led her to become a divine healer: which changed her own life, and that of thousands of others. With the support of a local doctor, she used her gift until she married at age 19, although she kept them hidden from her husband Henry, worried he would think them ‘strange.’
After Henry’s death she came to Saluda with 16 children in tow; 20 more were adopted. Another vision came, this time enlightening her to 10 herbs that grew in trees and shrubbery. Gathering these herbs, she made a ‘cleansing tea,’ which cured her of the “running sickness,” and others of many ills.
What was this magic drink, this elixir? No one knows; the recipe died with Phoebe, unfortunately. Ella Geter, a now-deceased resident of Saluda’s black community, reminisced about pine bark, oak bark and herbs such as rat-bane that were purchased by Phoebe from neighborhood children and local folks who would scour mountain sides to fill burlap sack loads. The mix of greenery was cooked; peppermint from the drug store was added in; then Phoebe “would pray over it.” Others were allowed to prepare the base; but she alone added the ‘essence.’
Word spread among the black community in Saluda; then to the white. Phoebe treated all who needed her: black or white, it didn’t matter to her; along with her magical elixir, she used healing touch and prayer. People would line up outside the Sullivan house until it was impossible to get in: they’d have to take a number, Ella Geter recalled. Back when passenger trains huffed up the Saluda Grade, the ailing and the believers from all over the East Coast would come; after passenger trains no longer groaned up the mountain, people came by bus or car. Some said “Aunt Phoebe” was an angel; some declared her an illegal practitioner of medicine – but whatever it was, it often worked.
In 1947, she founded the Sullivan Temple Missionary Baptist Church, which still exists. Phoebe built a sprawling house for her large family and spent considerable amounts of money on civic causes and caring for the poor. Each year, she would have a birthday party; hundreds and hundreds of people, even whole congregations from New York and Washington, would come to celebrate. Her books included “The Book of Dreams,” and “From The Cradle to The Crutch,” among other memoirs. Accounts vary over the age she actually was at her death in 1963, but she did attain ‘old age:’ estimates range from 99 to 107.
Buried at Mountain Page Cemetery near Saluda, she is still remembered as a woman who cared for others and lived simply; the legend of Phoebe Sullivan lives on, despite the crumbling buildings, encroaching kudzu and passing of time.