“I was losing my sight—sugar was at 500,” Byrd says. He was taking the doctor’s medicine with little effect, but when he took Christian’s tonic he says it knocked his sugar down overnight and he’s been healthy ever since. “I’m fine,” he says. “My sugar’s normal.”
Lingering outside to finally give in to habit and smoke a cig, Christian says goodbye to Byrd and walks back through the Gallery, stopping to chat with some more security workers on the way to the subway. From there, he rides up to Spring Garden Street and enters the Penn Herb Company, a large herbal remedy store where he buys the bulk of his raw ingredients. Walking past the shelves and displays, he causally reels off the different substances and their benefits:
“Celery seed and corn silk; 100 percent pure. Makes the base of a lot of what I do.”
“Burdock root, one of the best purifiers you can get.”
“Alfalfa herb—keeps horses and elephants strong.”
“Feverfew—knocks migraine headaches right out.”
Store management declined to comment for the story, but the shop appears to do a brisk business, with a perpetual line of customers waiting to check out with raw herbs, pre-mixed products and health foods. Christian shakes his head at the self-help books on display that claim to hold the secrets to healthy living. “Books are pretty much a waste of time,” he scoffs. “When it comes to simple stuff, people can do it relatively easily. But when it comes to diabetes it’s not that easy.”
He credits his father and uncles for teaching him techniques that books never could. Now that the older generation is gone, he’s left on his own to solve new mysteries of the human immune system. “I don’t have anyone to go to,” Christian says. “I’m the last one. I could have gotten so much more than I did.”
The seeds of Christian’s knowledge were planted in the mountains of Amherst, Va., where his father’s family tended to their health using ancient Appalachian wisdom. While Christian spent his youth in West Philly in the same house he lives in now, his uncles and grandparents still lived on a farm on the outskirts of the small mountain town. His cousin, Bishop Raymond Milburn, 18 years his senior and a pastor at the Temple of Christ Church in Olney, grew up in Amherst himself. A soft-spoken but willing storyteller, Milburn sits at a table in his North Philly home and recounts his childhood.
“At night you can’t see a light nowhere. You know we were deep back in the woods,” says Milburn, now 68. Born in Philadelphia in 1942, he moved to the farm when he was 3 and remembers the old four-bedroom house with a woodstove and trapdoor basement. The town itself was tiny, maybe 600 or 700 people, at the time without even a stoplight. Most residents were white, with some black families on the fringes. “Black folks were poor, out in the woods,” Milburn says.
Between six and 10 people lived in the house when Milburn was growing up as relatives came and went. The family sold maybe $400 worth of tobacco a year, and that was all the money they had. Otherwise they had to live on what they grew and raised—corn, wheat, eggs, milk, pork and chickens. Milburn, known familiarly to family as “the last of the barefoot plowboys,” worked hard fetching firewood from the forest, milking cows and slopping the hogs.
The family cooked up herbal remedies out of necessity. The closest doctor was in Lynchburg, 16 miles away, and the nearest hospital was more than 50 miles away, in Charlottesville. The only time anyone saw a doctor was for a home visit when a baby was on the way. “Black folks didn’t have insurance so they weren’t allowed in hospitals,” Milburn says. Instead, they took care of themselves. He describes a homemade mustard plaster his grandmother would rub on his chest, and a tree moss remedy to heal sores. “You had to take a laxative every quarter,” he reminisces fondly.
Milburn credits the herbal medicine for the family’s long lifespan—his grandfather, Samuel Scot Christian, born in 1884, died in 1971 at the healthy age of 87. “All he had was rheumatism,” Milburn says proudly. He laments lost knowledge that never got passed on, since Christian was the only member of the younger generation to take an interest in the lore. “Everything is in the earth,” Milburn says. “You search it out. So much stuff is lost.”
In 1955, Milburn’s uncle, Wellington Christian Sr., left the farm to look for work in Philadelphia, where he became a mason. Milburn followed him three years later, running away from Amherst when he was 16. After Christian Jr. was born in 1960, nearly every summer he, his family and Milburn made the trip down to Virginia to visit, sometimes multiple times per year. Christian, nicknamed Skeeter because as a baby he could never stay still and was always scooting around, got his first lesson in anatomy watching his uncles and cousins gut the deer they shot out in the woods. He also eagerly took in all he could about the herbs and potions his father and uncles cooked up together. Once he saw his dad cure a neighbor’s asthma, he knew he was hooked. “When you grow up seeing that, there ain’t nobody telling you what you can’t do,” he says. He started voraciously reading medical dictionaries and journals to supplement his homegrown knowledge.
The trips slacked off as Christian got older, but he and his cousin stayed close—Christian refers to Milburn as his spiritual adviser and best friend, where he turns to for help when his life and plans go awry. “He’s real, real serious about what he’s doing,” Milburn says. “When he gets discouraged, I call him.”
The sympathetic ear is welcome, because despite his easy-going nature and apparent medical talents, Christian has spent much of adult life with his personal and professional affairs teetering on the edge of catastrophe. After high school, he worked masonry with his dad for a few years while continuing to soak up his old man’s knowledge of herbs and medicine. In 1981, he got a job as a track worker for SEPTA, until 1987 when he met with near-tragedy when a forklift rolled over on him. “I jumped out, tried to roll away, but I wasn’t fast enough,” he remembers. He suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula—bones sticking clear out of his skin. “My leg damn near fell off,” he says, rolling up his pant leg to reveal a scar the shape of a giant cinnamon roll on top of his already considerably sized calf.
Somehow doctors saved his leg without having to amputate, and Christian refused pain medicine and checked out of the hospital as soon as possible to self-medicate. “Cortisone’s no good—it runs all the calcium out of the bone, makes it all spongy,” he says. He told the doctors, “When I get out of here, I’m going to take alfalfa and yucca—” the same thing that makes horses and elephants strong. The doctors told him he wouldn’t walk for a year at least. He laughs. “I was running steps in seven months,” he says, fully recovered but bearing the scar and limp as souvenirs.
He went back to SEPTA but was fired in 1992 for a dispute over leave time, so he moved to Greensboro, N.C., in 1992 to work at a friend’s herb store. The partnership fell apart, however, and he moved back to Philly in 1999 to be with his ailing father, who died that year of heart failure on Christmas Eve. Christian decided to stay since his mother, two younger siblings and Milburn all live in the city. Along the way Christian had three children by three different woman—a 30 year old son who lives in Jersey, a 25 year old daughter in Detroit and a 21 year old son he’s lost contact with. He never married any of the women— “All they want from me is money,” he says bitterly— but did find true love eventually, only to have it ripped away from him.
In Greensboro, he met a woman named Vanessa Greenlee. Unlike the other women who passed through his life, he sensed a real future with her. Soon they were engaged, and he kept traveling back and forth to Carolina to see her after he moved back home to be with his dad.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide