The Religious Practices of Southern Slaves in America

Home  |  The African Continent  |  Africa & the World  |  Indigenous to America



The Religious Practices of Southern Slaves in America


Mamaissii Vivian Dansi Hounon, M.Ed


"Vodoun/Hoodo priest" in gris-gris-jacket
great-grandfather of Mamaissii Vivian (author)



"The West African slave trade, depleted some of the best minds taken from
these African soils. Many were priests and priestesses,
who were raided from remote villages, and taken to America."

Paraphrased quote taken from film presented to visitors
to Elmina's Slave Castles in Ghana. 2001


Contrary to popular belief, the Africans enslaved to build the economic foundation of America were not Christians.1 During slavery, African-Americans were not even allowed to worship as Christians. 2 The builders of this great nation were practitioners of the various African Religions popularly known today as "Voodoo", (Vodoun) Ifa, Orisha, La Reglas de Congo, and Mami Wata . A small percentage were even (African-styled) Muslims3, incorporating ancestral veneration and family deities into their ritual practice.

These spiritual practices of the Africans enslaved in America, have their ancestral origins not from Haiti, Cuba, or the Americas, but directly from Dahomey (Ewe [ev-way]), Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, the Congo, and other West African nations. The Spirits remained in their blood just as they did wherever the African was taken and enslaved in the New World 4

The West Africans also arrived in America speaking their native mother tongues, and were forbidden to learn English, or to read, including the Euro-Christian Bible. The Christian missionaries, (of whom the majority supported slavery), were not interested in actually teaching the tenets of Christianity to the enslaved Africans, but rather their primary focus was on civilizing them from their "idolatrous" ways, and making them compliant with their lamentable fate of chattel slavery. 5

Interestingly enough, many West Africans with an extensive history of pre-christian Talmudic (biblical) ritual knowledge and practice, even arrived in the Americas highly familiar with their own pre-Christian tales of the legend of "Moses" .6 They were not familiar with him as the Christianized Moses who led the Jews to the promised land, but rather as"the great conjurer," in which he was revered and celebrated for centuries as the "bringer of the law."

In some locations, Moses was even worshiped as a God. As someone who wielded great power with the High God. A great and powerful elder who dwelt among humans. He was directly associated with the symbol of the rainbow, serpent deity Dan (or Damballa) of the Vodou Religion in Dahomey.


Rainbow Serpent Diety. Oldest manifestational form.
The repository of the great Ancesters.
Arara/Yeveh Vodoun. Augusta, GA. USA.

Though some forms of westernized Christianity made its way to many West African nations prior to the trans-Atlantic voyages, it effected little inroads into the lives of the millions of traditionalist Africans captured and enslaved in America. Thousands still continued to praise God, propitiate their ancestors and serve their tutelary and ancestral divinities.

"Snake Woman"

There was a woman that died. The night before she died, we was crossing Gilmore, and Moore Street, going to church and her snake got away. . . She kept two snakes in the house.
[She] say she could send them anywhere she wanted to.

"Story told by Conjureman" Wilmington, N.C., Hyatt: Hoodoo, Conjuration, & Witchcraft. pg 66 Vol I.

Denied basic medical care, and distrustful of "modern medicine", millions of enslaved Africans in the South, still depended exclusively on the "root worker," for their medical and spiritual prescriptions to tend to their physical and spiritual needs. In the case of "Voodoo" (Vodoun), thousands more even performed secret rituals to their divinities of War, petitioning their aid in the numerous insurrections towards their liberation.

It was this latter ritual of African Religious practice, that incited the most fear and hatred in the hearts and minds of the slave owners, and American White citizenry. The slave owners learned only too well of the efficacy of its power.

This was so because "Voodoo's" (Vodoun) philosophical structure, and its ritual and cultural manifestation, emphasized the warrior gods who sustained and directly aided the Africans in their long struggle toward freedom. It was in this respect that the priesthood weld considerable power as they did in Africa.

I've Got A Way To "See" The Spirit

"I've got a way to see the spirit.
If I am going any place in the night,
I can walk along the road,
and if anybody died in a house,
and I pass that house out in the country,
and I want to see whoever it was that died,
I can spit on the ground in front of me,
and hold up my arm, and look under there,
and I can see whoever it is that died.
If you look back, you can
always see them hiding behind you.
I have to look under my left arm,
if I want see them before they scare me."

"Voodoo" woman". Sumter, South Carolina


Many African-Americans still possessed the "gifts of the
"Voodoo" Spirits" in-spite of harsh laws prohibiting them from
publicly honoring them as was done in Haiti.
Their powers would rival so-called "modern-day
New Agers"

As a result, an aggressive campaign was implemented to do away with African traditional religious practices once and for all. Heavy fines were often levied. Brutal forms of torture, severe beatings and even death was imposed on anyone caught practicing any from of the religion. Stringent laws were passed to prevent the Africans from speaking any African languages, building shrines, making ritual drums, or any musical instruments. Family members and neighbors were encouraged to "report" one another if caught practicing any form of the religion.

These draconian laws (which continued unabated until well after Reconstruction), included prohibitions against organizing in public; and any other method by which the slave owners suspected they might be "working " their magic.

Many priests and priestess' were murdered, some escaped up North, and nearly all who refused to [later] "convert" to Christianity and could not escape, suffered intense spiritual alienation and anguish due to the neglect of their Ancestors and gods. Thousands resisted and continued their practices underground. Forcing a once historically open and proud religious-cultural tradition to develop the underserved reputation of being "dark, and sinister" in the West.

These medieval, and unconstitutional laws were so successful, that in less than one generation, the many priests and priestesses who were not murdered, were forced to practice underground, and the new generations of enslaved Afro-diaspora had developed a learned afro-hagiophobia: a pathological fear and irrational intimidation of African spiritual and esorteric science, ancestral veneration, and its ritual and cultural expressions. The simplist spirit manifestations that were once understood in their cosmological context, now "spooked" the newly conditioned generations of African-Americans.

My life story is that I am a gifted medium

I do a spiritual form of work. On this altar is a looking glass,
and I must contact [the spirit] in a state of concentration .
You must fast and pray and get in contact with a good spirit.
Then I go before them and set my lights which my lights must
be washed off with either holy water or blessed water in order to work.
Then I must close the door and go in to what you would call a concentration
[trance], and I then contact my "individual" [spirit].
This chair is supposed to be consecrated and blessed by
that individual [spirit] that uses this chair.

[Priestess], New Orleans, Lousiana

This relentless campaign of maligning and actively suppressing African religions continued throughout the decades by the colonial [and later United States] government.

Replete with its racist imagery, and demeaning Hollywood stereotypes, "Voodoo" became the universal standard by which Christian evangelicals, racist anthropologists, educators and the general public used to clump, classify and categorically dismiss all African religious systems under colorful pejorative labels as "evil, crazed, sex-frenzied, idolatrous, cannibals, primitive, fetish worshiping, superstitious, demonic cults"-devoid of any meaningful moral foundation, social structure or philosophical/esoteric content.

Intentionally, mocked as "Voodoo", no clear distinctions were made between the ancestral religious traditions and its beneficent practices, and the "darker" maleficent traditions such as "sorcery, conjuration, and witchcraft." Tantamount to the spiritual-genocidal equivalency of blending Satanism with Christianity proper.

Madam Collins

I'm a spiritual doctor.
I know about this work.
I am a "doctor" that "tricks."

The sacrifice that you offer up to "Jesus" [meaning Legba]
Removes the Trick. For he is the "trick" giver
And the Trick taker.

You consecrate your altar with a prayer.
In that room I wear white robes.
I wear a white cap-like hat.
It just fits your head. . .
That prevents the work from "dying" your head.
It turns your hair gray.
This work will age you.

[I] get plenty of work from White people.
They can't get to a man [Episcopal Priest] like you.
They come to some of us,
who they think and heard is the best.

[priestess], Memphis, Tennessee

Because the African diaspora welded no significant economic, or political clout, and most of what remained of its priesthood duly maligned and discredited, it became nearly impossible to present the true spiritual reality of what Vodou actually is, and its profound importance to the spiritual sustenance of the African diaspora.

Ancestral and spirit "callings" that manifested in their traditional modes, went unheeded, many lacking the philosophical/ ritual knowledge and expertise to tend to them. This would often escalate and deteriorate into mental illness, family dysfunction, drug addiction, violent outbursts, alcoholism, suicide, and other forms of self-destructive behavior.

Even today, much of the ongoing social malaise, psychic and mental confusion, and spiritual pathology that many in the diaspora are experiencing, may be directly related to their dis-connectedness from the very gods and ancestors who are inextricably connected to their soul and psyche, but many have now, through centuries of conditioning, ignorance, fear and shame have learned to mock and avoid. Many try unsuccessfully to seek solace in other Western spiritual practices and Eastern traditions, with little understanding of the reasons why they have found no home or peace.

I Am A Shield Man

I'm a Shield Man,
Nothing can hurt [hoodoo] me but a lick (punch)
A Brickbat-A Pistol-or a Knife.

I can take a deck of cards and tell anybody
more than they want to know.

Not only take a deck of cards
I can take a cup and tell anybody
anything they want to know

I can walk along the street and look at a person
and tell whether they are "hurt" [hoodoo-ed] or not

I Am Your Black Jesus.

Lindsay-"Voodoo" priest, Richmond, Virginia (1970?

In America, though many of the traditional ritual and ceremonial practices of "Voodoo" were lost, most of its healing, divinatory, and spirit manifestational elements , were later forced to merge into the magico-botanical practices of what came to be known derisively as "Hoodoo."

It is vitally important for the African-diaspora to understand that absence of the public expression of a religion does not negate ones ancestral lineage nor birth-right. The "Voodoo" is still present in the blood of those whose ancestors are born from it. They have never forgotten their children or rightful heirs. Thousands are still being born today carrying the Spiritual lineages of the ancestors. Many have lost the knoweldge of what to look for.

More than five volumes of this powerful oral tradition of our African-American ancestors spiritual mastery and God-given gifts has re-surfaced, leaving a powerful legacy to their descendants. A legacy not borne from Haiti, nor any other region, but the United States of America. A powerful testament to their lingering presence and gift to us of this ancient religion as their heir and true descendants who now carry their spirits.

More importantly, these ancestral spiritual lineages of the millions of Africans who for centuries cultivated and carried these Spirits in their blood was never lost, and are being resurrected today as we awaken from centuries of fear, ignorance, shame and forced amnesia of who we really are.

African Traditional Religions with over 50 million open adherents, world-wide, are becoming the fastest growing religions in the world. Religious traditions that harbor no history of violent inquisitions, persecution of others, nor coercive proselytizing.

This is so because they are at their fundamental and cosmological core ancestral religions, of spiritual growth and transformation thru the guidance, wisdom and earned power of ones immediate and divine African Ancestors and their appointed divinities. The birth-right of millions of African descendants in the diaspora, whose ancestors fought hard to maintain their sacred rights.

Today, it is up to all to lift centuries of racist labeling, stereotypes, and mistruths about these powerfully transforming spiritual systems. They are counting on us to lift the veil of ignorance and shame, by bringing both dignity to their ancient ["Voodoo"] Spirits and honor to their personal sufferings. In the end, the Gods will prevail.


Mamaissii Vivian Dansi Hounon is (the first resurrected lineage) Hounon priestess of the Yeveh Vodoun and Mami Wata tradition in the United States. She was initiated (1988) by Akuete Durchbach & (1996) by Arita & Daneil Sussah; and trained in Anheo,Togo, West Africa, and in the United States (1996). She is a graduate of Chaminade University (Honolulu, HI,1981, BGS), and Augusta State University (GA: 1995 M.Ed).

She has been traveling to West Africa (and other countries) since 1988.

Her spiritual lineage descends directly from both sides of her own family who were Mami Wata & Vodoun priests, captured & enslaved as hired-out masons and carvers in America.

Her Mami Wata & Vodou shrines [in Augusta, GA.] were installed by priests from Togo, West Africa, in the lineage of her family: Arara, Tchamba, Ewe Vodou and Mami Wata. Her mission is ancestral. Annually, Mamaissii Vivian and two Togbui Mamaissii Hounons from Togo conduct Mami Wata & Vodou initiations, as well as resurrect lost ancestral lineages of the African-American and Afro-diaspora.

She is founder and president of OATH (Ogranization of African Traditional Healers), and the first Mami Wata Healing Society of North America, Inc.,


1. See Prof. Terry Matthews "The Religion of the Slaves"

2. "Except for the Society of Friends, all religious groups in America supported slavery. In the South black people were not usually allowed to attend church services. Those churches that did accept them would segregate them from white worshipers. One of the main reasons why masters did not want their slaves to become Christians involved the Bible. They feared that slaves might interpret the teachings of Jesus Christ as being in favor of equality."

Simkinn, John. Slavery: An Illustrated History of Black Resistance (1988).
See also:
Slavery and Religion in America: A Time Line 1440-1866

3. See Islam & African Traditional Religion

4. See: A Slave In Brooklyn: Archeologists Uncover Ritual Artifacts
See also:
Prof. Cora Agatucci Syllabus links to slave narratives from burial to worship using African Traditional rituals.

5."This was one of the main reasons why most plantation owners did what they could to stop their slaves from learning to read. Slaves were also forbidden from continuing with African religious rituals. Drums were also banned as overseers worried that they would be used to send messages. They were particularly concerned that they would be used to signal a slave uprising" (Simkinn 1988).

6. Hurston, Zora (1991). Moses, Man of the Mountain. xxiv. HarperPerennial. New York.
See also:
Jewish Roots in Africa

Fig 1. Eveerett, Susanne. (1978). History of Slavery. London.

Fig 2. Paraphrased quote taken from Middleton, H. Hyatt. (1973) pg. 2154- 2155. Vol Three. Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork. Alama Egan Hyatt Foundation. Ill.

Fig. 3. Ibid. pg. 933.

Fig 4. Ibid. pg. 993.

Fig.5 Ibid. pg. 950.

Fig 6. "African [American] Grave". Century Magazine 41, no. 6 (April 1891): 827.

This article is reprinted with the permission of Mamaissii Vivian Dansi Hounon M.Ed

comments and letters to comments@ipoaa.com