Kevin Riordan: Keeping healer's spark alive

Francine Still Hicks, a Palmyra artist, has created a program about her ancestor James Still, the legendary "black doctor of the Pines."
Francine Still Hicks, a Palmyra artist, has created a program about her ancestor James Still, the legendary "black doctor of the Pines."

Palmyra woman channels the spirit of her Pinelands ancestor.

Posted: September 25, 2011

Growing up in Camden in the 1960s, Francine Still Hicks knew her great-great-grandfather only as the author of a book her family treasured.

She's since gotten to know the 19th-century James Still, the legendary "black doctor of the Pines," a lot better.

"I have the portrait I painted of him on the wall," Hicks, 57, says with a throaty chuckle. "We talk all the time."

Hicks, an artist in Palmyra, recently gave an original, idiosyncratic presentation about her illustrious ancestor at Batsto Village in Wharton State Forest.

The passionate, poetic, even prayerful tribute, titled "Legacy of Promise," grew from a vow Hicks made after the death of her sister in 1988. Bonita Jean Still Austin had been the unofficial curator of the family's history. Hicks has inherited that role, and then some.

"Legacy of Promise" is among a series of presentations she's developing, in various media, to inform younger generations about where they came from. Though focused on the African American struggle, Hicks tells a universal story about family, resilience, and redemption.

"I'm going to start with Dr. James' father, in Maryland, who worked very hard and saved up every penny to buy his freedom," Hicks says to her audience, using her ancestor's more colloquial name. The Still migration began in 1799, she says, with some family members traveling "all the way from Maryland up to Burlington County on foot."

James Still, who did not have a medical degree, was an herbal healer who became famous in the area. He died in 1882. His brother William was an author and abolitionist. Other Stills became prominent in the arts, and many descendants still live in South Jersey.

Still "made something of himself by educating himself, and acquiring property - which made him wealthy - and by treating people's medical conditions with the herbs and plants of the Pinelands," says historian Paul Schopp, who lives in Riverton.

"There's also his book" - Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still - "which he wrote with only three months of formal education," Schopp says. "Every time I read it, I learn something new."

At the Batsto Visitor Center auditorium, Hicks needs no notes or podium. She's a human PowerPoint, using her paintings to illustrate her story and singing a couple of bars of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

"Many times, I hear Dr. James' spirit," she says, chuckling. "His story inspires me so much."

Hicks' sons, Bryant and Brandon, listen on the small stage, waiting to play the original, effervescent jazz compositions that open and close the teaching and preaching.

The brothers - who perform and record as the duo Strategy - credit their mother's father with teaching them the basic chords on which they've built their careers as a keyboardist and bassist.

Betsy Carpenter describes the afternoon as delightful.

"I love [Francine's] enthusiasm, and how she's able to channel Dr. Still's spirit," says Carpenter, 71, a retired educator who lives in Chatsworth. "I enjoyed the rapport she has with her sons. . . . It's obvious the artistic gene has gone through the generations."

"We should all learn from this," says Linda Stanton, a member of the Batsto Citizens Committee, which invited Hicks to speak. "It's up to generations of today to keep history alive. . . . It's easily forgotten, misquoted, and eventually lost forever."

Hicks says her great-great-grandfather "wants people to know everything about him, including his frailties. People can find strength in them."

That's why, during her talk, she cites Still's memoir, which is still in print. In it, he cites how "sipping" a bit of home brew turned into steady drinking.

"Read Dr. James' book. Get to know the reality," Hicks says. "He [talks] about the liquor, and how it was becoming a habit, and how every day going out to the field, he had to have a drink.

"He was drinking more and more to get the effect, and he said, 'I can't do this.' He made this vow to himself and to Providence not to drink anymore.

"If Dr. James had depended on his next drink over his dream," Hicks declares, "I would not be here."

Nor would she be able to pursue her dream to produce DVDs and get "Legacy of Promise" on TV.

"I want to take it national," Hicks says. "And beyond."


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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