The above death certificate states – This is to certify that I was called to see Elizabeth Brooks whom I found to be afflicted with Cholera morbus & Liver disease in a very advanced state. She was cured of the Cholera morbus but discontinued taking medicine for the Liver disease and as I am informed by her mother has departed this Life on Monday Augt. 20th 1849. G.A. Snyder M.D.
The person that signed Ms. Brooks’ death certificate was Dr. George A. Snyder, an herb doctor or botanic physician. He was treating Ms. Brooks for Cholera and the resultant liver damage. It was not unusual for the African American community to utilize the service of a “root doctor.” The 1847 Philadelphia African American Census lists ten Black men and women as herb doctors. What is uncommon about Dr. Snyder was that he was a white man.
According to historian Natalie Lewis, herb doctors also were called conjurers, root doctors, and healers. Black Philadelphia herb doctors owed their origins and knowledge to their African heritage. Again from Ms. Lewis, “Africans, when taken from their homeland some 400 years ago, brought with them more than their words. They also brought their experience working with herbs, and they transmitted their botanical knowledge to their children.” *
Sadly, there is no census or city directory information on Ms. Brooks. The red arrow on the map above shows the location of Dr. Snyder’s home and office. It is safe to assume that Ms. Brooks, and possibly her mother, lived nearby. Dr. Snyder lived on Powell Street which crossed from 5th to 6th Streets before the area became Independence Square. There was a sizable number of Black families residing in the alleys and courts in the area around the State House, now known as Independence Hall (see the red pin on the map). There were numerous hotels, restaurants, and taverns in the area where Blacks worked as waiters and domestics. Could Ms. Brooks and her mother have worked in these professions?
What we do know about Ms. Brooks is that, while she laid on her death bed in the stifling heat of August, the streets of Philadelphia were full of vicious white mobs murdering Black men and women and burning their homes, businesses, and churches. The Klu Klux Klan-like gangs raged for several days and nights unchecked by the police who instead arrested Black men for defending themselves.
Ms. Brooks died on an August day on which the skies were clear and the temperature reached 82° by late afternoon. Her mother buried her at Bethel Burying Ground. Please say her name – Elizabeth Brooks.
*Encyclopedia of Black Studies, Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama, eds., p. 422.