The Doctor-Botanist Couple Healing a Community in the Rural South

In Alabama’s Black Belt, where COVID rates are high and hospitals are understaffed, Dr. Marlo Paul and her plant biologist husband, Anthony, are making house calls and providing free herbal remedies from their own farm.



When Ruby Evans Moss called on Dr. Marlo Paul this spring, the schoolteacher had nowhere to turn. Her husband, Adolphus Moss, a deacon and office employee who farmed in his spare time, was hospitalized with COVID-19.

Moss was told to quarantine at home despite feeling ill because her rural hospital had run out of tests and PPE. Her primary care doctor’s office was shuttered and the nearest city hospital was a 70-mile drive from her tiny Alabama Black Belt community of Bellamy.

Within days, Moss tested positive for COVID-19 at a mobile testing unit, as did her two sisters, a cousin, her best friend’s husband, and a co-worker. A few days later, her husband passed away.

“It was happening so fast,” said Moss. “So many of our family members, friends, and neighbors getting sick.”

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As the virus engulfed her community, Moss was visited by Dr. Paul and her husband Anthony, a retired plant biologist. The couple, who run a medicinal herb farm and wellness center in the region, drove 50 miles from their farm in Sawyerville to check on Moss. Dr. Paul, who is the only Black female doctor within three neighboring counties, took Moss’s vitals and offered health tips, then the Pauls gave her a generous supply of an herbal supplement they produced on their farm. They also provided the supplement to several of Moss’ family members and the doctor phoned her daily to offer support and monitor symptoms—all without charging her a penny.

Dr. Marlo Paul gives Ms. Moss a virtual hug during a recent home visit in Alabama's Black Belt.

Dr. Marlo Paul gives Ruby Evans Moss a virtual hug during a recent home visit.

In recent months, COVID-19 has battered the rural South, disproportionately affecting African Americans like Moss and her friends and family, and stretching already thin health care resources. The Pauls have aimed to fill the gap, making approximately 200 home wellness visits thus far to those ill with the virus in a region saddled with some of the worst COVID-19 infection rates. They don’t charge for the visits, the herbs, or the after-care calls. And, so far, all the patients they’ve served have survived, the couple said.

“They were there for me mentally and physically,” Moss told Civil Eats. “It was just a blessing that God sent these people.”

Disparities Lead to Climbing COVID-19 Cases

The Pauls’ 116-acre farm lies on a gentle slope surrounded by woods in Hale County, the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt. While the land is bucolic, life in the region is harsh. The Black Belt, known historically for its rich black soil, cotton production, and predominantly African American population, continues to be defined by the legacy of slavery. With some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, the region’s residents face unemployment or under-employment and meager access to education and medical care—conditions ripe for the coronavirus to spread unfettered.

Most of the farmland in the Black Belt is still owned by white people, while African Americans are employed in marginal jobs in housekeeping, trucking, manufacturing, food processing, and agriculture.

While rural communities are remote and isolated—often a good thing when it comes to fighting coronavirus—many Black Belt residents are essential frontline workers who commute to nearby cities, where they’ve been exposed.

While the rural communities are remote and isolated—often a good thing when it comes to fighting coronavirus—many Black Belt residents are essential frontline workers who commute to nearby cities, where they’ve been exposed. And because most people in the area live in cramped trailers or mobile homes—often in multi-generational families—the virus has spread quickly among relatives.

Thirty-seven percent of Alabama’s COVID-19 cases and nearly half of its COVID-19 deaths have taken place among the state’s Black residents, despite the fact that they make up only a quarter of the state’s population.

Alabama, which like other Southern states reopened early (including bars and dine-in restaurants), has seen a spike in cases since Memorial Day. As of last week, cases have continued to climb, hospitalizations were at an all-time high, and ICU beds at an all-time low. More than 1,000 people in the state have died.

“The numbers of positive cases rose very slowly in our area because there wasn’t adequate testing,” said Pamela Madzima, Alabama state coordinator at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which represents Black farming cooperatives. “As testing expanded, the numbers [in the Black Belt] quickly doubled and tripled. We’re still seeing high numbers . . . even though the state has opened up.”

Before the pandemic, Black rural residents grappled with high rates of chronic health conditions such diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and high blood pressure. Now, many of those same conditions have put them at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

“What COVID-19 did was really reveal the underlying health problems of people in our Black Belt counties and exposed the great health disparities between Black and white,” said John Zippert, chair of Greene County Hospital System board of directors. Those disparities exist partly because about 40 percent of the population is uninsured, Zippert said, because lawmakers in Alabama—like other Southern states—chose not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“What COVID-19 did was really reveal the underlying health problems of people in our Black Belt counties and exposed the great health disparities between Black and white.”

Moreover, Alabama’s Black Belt counties and others near them have long been the dumping grounds for various industries. Those who work in plants and factories are also in contact with pollutants and dangerous chemicals. As a result, large numbers of relatively young people in the region have bone and pancreatic cancers, heart attacks, and strokes, said Marlo Paul. And a recent Harvard study found that even a very small increase in the amount of pollution a community is exposed to over the long term can lead to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

On top of those issues, access to healthcare in the Black Belt is abysmal, said Paul. At least seven rural hospitals have closed over the past decade and, of the ones that remain, 88 percent operate in the red. Many rural hospitals and clinics are unable to afford even basic necessities, including gloves, masks, or coronavirus tests, not to mention ventilators. “There are no specialists and the hospitals are not equipped to do most of what people need,” said Paul.

Due to this lack of resources, Paul said, hospitals and nursing homes there have turned away very sick COVID-19 patients. Those patients are forced to make it on their own or drive long distances to a larger hospital.

There’s also a dearth of information about the virus in the region, said Anthony Paul. “The schools, the churches, and the clinics are closed,” he said “There is no education, and the people in this area don’t understand the virus.” Some don’t have broadband or even a consistent phone signal, he added. As a result, people may not know how the virus is transmitted; rumors and conspiracy theories abound. Some believe the virus won’t hurt them and go about their lives as usual, while others wear their masks even to sleep, compromising their ability to breathe.

Growing Herbs to Thwart Disease

These socio-economic and health disparities have inspired the Pauls to work for change. And their farm has become a vehicle for much-needed healing in the region.

As a student and later biology professor at Oakwood University in Alabama, Anthony founded the National Association for the Prevention of Starvation (NAPS), a nonprofit Christian-based relief organization that worked with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, supporting African American farmers in the Black Belt and seeing first-hand the challenges faced by residents of the rural South. “The poverty, the health disparities, and the problems faced by Black farmers really stuck in my mind,” he said.

Marlo Paul, M.D. (right), and Anthony Paul, Ph.D.

Marlo Paul used to have a private practice in northern Alabama. On weekends, she offered free clinics in the state’s Black Belt counties. The couple eventually decided to focus full-time on helping rural Black communities. Ten years ago, they left their jobs and bought land about 40 miles south of Tuscaloosa, naming it Eden Land Farm.

At first, they grew vegetables and Anthony led local NAPS volunteers in building a wellness center on the farm and a clinic and school in a neighboring county. Marlo, who serves as NAPS’s medical director, began to work at two clinics in the state’s poorest counties. “This work brought me back to my true calling as a physician,” she recalled. “It was not to make a lot of money, but to help those who need it the most.”

As she witnessed the extent and broad range of illnesses in the Black Belt, Marlo came to realize that conventional medicine wasn’t working for most of her patients. Instead of leading them toward recovery and disease prevention, she was temporarily patching up problems. It was then that the Pauls started working with a more holistic approach to healing, including promoting lifestyle changes and growing herbs that could counter disease.

Today, the Pauls grow about 30 herbs on the farm; some start from seeds in the greenhouses and others are perennials that permanently grow on the property. Instead of using pesticides and herbicides, they keep 50 sheep, 10 cows, and 30 goats, and use the manure to fertilize the soil (the farm is not certified organic). They source drip irrigation from rainwater.

To develop their line of herbal supplements, the Pauls merged their medical and plant biology skills to search for potent plant-derived ingredients that power conventional medication. Willow bark, for example, contains salicin that the body converts into salicylic acid—a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent that has been modified by chemists into modern-day aspirin.

They also rely widely on plants considered medicinal around the world, with scientific research backing, including moringa oleifera, widely used in Southeast Asia to remedy diabetes, joint pain, and other maladies, hibiscus, popular with healers across the globe for its antibacterial, anti-diabetic and anti-hypertensive effects, ligustrum (privet) plants, used in Chinese medicine to prevent and cure hepatitis and chronic bronchitis, and the mimosa plant, employed in Indian Ayurvedic medicine to treat everything from diarrhea to dysentery and bleeding.

When traveling internationally on medical missions with NAPS, the Pauls have also spoken with local medicine men and women about the herbs they use. And they’ve interviewed African American elders in the Black Belt about popular plant-based remedies used there. That’s how they came across mullein (verbascum thapsus), traditionally used in the South to treat respiratory problems, aches, and arthritis. Another local discovery was osage orange, also known as maclura pomifera or the hedge apple tree, omnipresent in the Black Belt and used as an anti-inflammatory medicine. Some scientists believe the bitter plant could be an alternative cancer treatment.

“Old folks are dying off and the next generation has no knowledge of plants because they have not relied on home remedies.”

“If you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it,” said Anthony. “Old folks are dying off and the next generation has no knowledge of plants because they have not relied on home remedies.”

The herbs are picked fresh, freeze dried, and packaged on the farm. The supplements are sold online, but the Pauls also distribute them locally free of charge, said Anthony. Prior to the pandemic, the couple also hosted health seminars and ran retreats.

Their herbal supplements are not a replacement for western medicine, the couple said. But they can help support healthy outcomes, especially when coupled with lifestyle changes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates dietary supplements—including herbal ones—does not require that they be tested or approved prior to being sold. “Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA’s satisfaction before they are marketed,” says the agency.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 among Black Belt residents refocused the couple’s work, said Marlo, leading her to assemble an all-volunteer medical team to make house calls, including nurses, medical assistants, volunteer missionary school students, and her husband. The team drives to the homes of those impacted by the virus, many of whom live in isolated areas, with the doctor checking temperatures, oxygen saturation, and listening to patients’ lungs. They also distribute the herbal supplements to all household members. Marlo shares health tips: drink a lot of water, do moderate exercise such as walking, get adequate sleep, and avoid sugar. She also prays with the patients.

“During the pandemic, our main objective is to keep people out of the hospital,” she said. “Those who go to the hospital usually don’t make it.”

Resilience and Hope

Ruby Moss recovered at home within a few weeks of getting COVID. Since her husband’s passing, she now lives alone in a remote wooded area with few other houses around—so she’s thankful that the Pauls checked on her in person when no one else did.

“You don’t have too many doctors who do that kind of stuff,” said Moss.

Now, she’s worried for her neighbors’ health as well as their economic well-being, given that the pandemic has wiped away jobs in a region that was already economically depressed. Moss lives in Sumter County, which is two-thirds African-American and carries the distinction of being Alabama’s poorest county, with a poverty rate of 36 percent. “Our community is dying out,” she said, “but not just because of COVID. People can’t find work, schools have closed, people don’t have enough to eat. It’s just been rough living here.”

Zippert of the Greene County Hospital System said the work Marlo and Anthony Paul do is a great service to the community. “They’re providing care to people who desperately need it,” Zippert said. But the Black Belt deserves a lot more access to care to relieve its health care inequities, he added, and that can only be accomplished through systemic change, namely expanding Medicaid.

Without health insurance, tens of thousands of people in the state’s rural areas don’t see a doctor on a regular basis, can’t afford medication, and end up with chronic, advanced stages of preventable diseases such as cancer, hypertension, or asthma—all co-morbidity factors when it comes to COVID-19.

“People have these conditions because they don’t have insurance. And if they catch the coronavirus, they get sicker and are more likely to die,” Zippert said. “It’s an injustice, and for people in places like the Black Belt, where there’s historical poverty, the impact has been much worse.”

Southern states’ refusal to expand Medicaid has impacted not just individuals, but also strained the health care system, Zippert said. The Greene County Health System spends $100,000 per month on uncompensated care, destabilizing its finances. It has stayed afloat due to revenue from electronic bingo machines, but it has just two doctors and can’t afford to bring on another.

Because chances for Medicaid expansion in Alabama are small—Republican Governor Kay Ivey has refused to consider it—and COVID-19 cases in Alabama and across the South are continuing to rise, the Pauls are working to expand their home visiting service to neighboring Mississippi, where a recent spike in cases has battered local health care facilities. NAPS is also working to build a clinic in that state.

They’re also working with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to start a telemedicine program. But it won’t be easy, given that much of the area lacks reliable, affordable broadband.

Despite the despair of rural poverty and the scarcity of medical care, Anthony said he is continuously awed by Black Belt residents. “People here have that thing called resilience,” he said. “It’s something mysterious and spiritual.”

For Marlo, who recently learned that her great-great-grandmother was a freed slave from Itta Bena, Mississippi, working in the Black Belt has turned out to be a homecoming of sorts.

“I’m serving my brothers and sisters,” she said. “It’s a very rewarding thing.”

View Comments (51)

  1. Tuesday, July 14th, 2020
    Keep the good work going and may God richly bless you
  2. Tuesday, July 14th, 2020
    This is so educational How would you be able to obtain some of these herbs. God bless you keep up to work for our African American 🙏
    • Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      You can purchase from the website. Www.dp3herbs.com
  3. Laverne
    Tuesday, July 14th, 2020
    I commend you for what you're doing. Blessings to you.
  4. Ruby Mayes
    Tuesday, July 14th, 2020
    Please forward to me a list of herbs for sale. Thank you and many blessings on the great work you are doing.
    • HATTIE D. MIMS
      Sunday, July 19th, 2020
      This is a very inspiring read and especially since I personally know both of the Drs. Paul. It is encouraging to know they are willing to share the information God has blesses them with at no cost. I am so excited for what you are doing, and I ask that you please keep me posted as you progress. Also, let me know what herbs you are marketing.
  5. Tony Scimeca
    Tuesday, July 14th, 2020
    Wonderful husband and wife team! You are doing God's work! I would not want to be in the shoes of any government leaders that don't support medicaid when they meet their maker. All lives will not matter until Black lives matter!
  6. Betty Robinson
    Tuesday, July 14th, 2020
    Hello Marlo Enjoy this timely information . I believe in natural remedies I do take herbal supplement daily so far I haven’t had the flu but once in my life I’m seventy now and I would like to know more about herbs, I need something natural that can keep me regular.I have a problem with regularity done tried almost everything. and something else that got my attention u said your great great grandma was a free slave from Itta Bena Mississippi . I was raised in In Itta Bena Mississippi and I’m wondering do I know of by name . Is she related to the Hart & Parker family. text me back and let me know .my great great grandma also live d in Mississippi she passed away before I was born but I got names and good memories of her. Thank again
    • Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      Wow! You’re from Itta Bena. The last name is Tompkins. Yes, DP3 does help to keep you regular.
  7. Sophia Murphy
    Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
    God bless you both!! Keep up the good work!!!
  8. Mary Morris Billings
    Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
    Thank you. My 82 year old mom caught COVID19 in rural clay County Alabama. The rural hospital could not help. She was sent home. My sister took care of my mom 24/7 keeping her fed, keeping her clean and hydrated as well as fighting fever.....my mom survived. Her County is seeing increased infections...the hosp2 is pressured financially as has always been the case. Thank you for putting Love above money. Thank you for capturing knowledge from our elders. Blessings...
  9. robin m taylor
    Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
    I thank the doctors for their much needed services. How can we support their efforts?
    • Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      You can donate at the website above. Thank you
  10. S mcdonald
    Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
    Thank you for your work. Do you have an online site to donate or purchase herbs to help support your mission?
    • Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      You can purchase at www.dp3herbs.com
  11. Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
    It gives me so much joy to read this.
    My prayer is for the Pauls to take super good care of themselves and that the Health Related Boards in Alabama leave Dr. Paul alone so that she can continue to be an angel of mercy.
  12. Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
    This is an incredible story. So sad in the reality it exposes of the disregard for segments of our society and the lack of health services for those with the highest need. And, so beautiful in the intention of this couple to minister to their community with love and the wisdom of allopathic, plant, and soul medicine.
  13. diane wayne
    Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
    What a wonderful work you are doing, saving lives, educating people, and providing hope. May God continue to bless you all for your faithfulness!
  14. tammy montgomery
    Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
    I am in awe of your dedication to your chosen discipline and the Black Belt. I am chair of Children of the Village Network, Inc. We provide Sumter County’s only stable food bank. I also consider myself a friend of Mrs. Ruby Moss. Your work is so valuable particularly during the covid pandemic. As one of Alabama’s poorest counties, lack of medical service and economic disparities crippled our county on any given day. I am interested in collaborating somehow with NAPS. PLEASE JOIN THE DIALOGUE.
    • DP3 Herbs
      Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      Please send your contact information to our email info@dp3herbs.org
  15. Shanda Lloyd
    Thursday, July 16th, 2020
    What is their website? I would love to order their products!
    • Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      You can purchase from dp3herbs.com
    • Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      Www.dp3herbs.com
  16. Thursday, July 16th, 2020
    Thank you for your work. Please post your website so people can order directly from Dr Paul. This will help people to have access to their remedies - I’m a herbalist amongst other things - and support your work at the same time. Thank you.
    • DP3 Herbs
      Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      Www.dp3herbs.com
  17. Dorothy Bradford
    Thursday, July 16th, 2020
    I grew up in the MS delta not far from Itta Bena. My great grandmother also used herbs and other products to treat our ailments. Later skull and crossbones were placed on certain products or those products were not available without a liscense. Would love to talk to you guys. Be encouraged.
  18. Sharon James
    Thursday, July 16th, 2020
    i came across your story/article and commit to pray for your sacrificial work in AL. God has blessed you with hearts to serve. Much love to you all.
    I am a psychotherapist and see many needs around me.
    When i get an opportunity to visit Alabama, it is on my bucket list, I’d love to see Eden Land Farm.
  19. Thursday, July 16th, 2020
    My mentor Dr. Anthony Paul and friend Dr. Marlo of the National Association of Starvation are God's inspired souls to uplift humanity.

    Great job!

    Godspeed,
  20. Ann
    Thursday, July 16th, 2020
    Beautiful and inspiring! I hope I can come to a retreat one day and boy would I like to help!
  21. Gwendolyn
    Thursday, July 16th, 2020
    How can I purchase some of the herbs. I use a few currently,burdock, dandelion, chickweed, cinnamon, hawthorne berries and I have books titled; Little Herb encyclopedia, The Green Garden Herbal Handbook are these a good source. What do you recommend for other reads. So glad I ran into you on Facebook. I love herbs because my use them when we were sick as children and they worked. Especially when caught colds and flu. I wished I had written some of them in a book. I am 70 years old. I believe in herbs for healing and I believe in caring doctors who are not intimidated by herbal healing as an alternative medication.

    Thank You
    G Ford
    • DP3 Herbs
      Thursday, July 16th, 2020
      You can purchase from Www.dp3herbs.com
  22. Anthony Harris
    Friday, July 17th, 2020
    This is amazing and under publicized. This type of story needs a wider and deeper circulation in our African American communities and the wider community as a whole.
    Tony
  23. Friday, July 17th, 2020
    How can I help?
  24. Friday, July 17th, 2020
    Love to share with you our Nelson Mandela endorsed strategy for rural village development and the superfood MORINGA

    UBUNTU= I AM BECAUSE YOU ARE!

    I GODS HANDS FOREVER

    Chris Engelbrecht

    South Africa
  25. Dosha Madison
    Friday, July 17th, 2020
    Love what you are doing for the community. I wish we had more people with hearts like yours. I would love to learn more about some of your herbal healings. If possible, I would love to visit your farm one day.
    Thanks and continue your work of kindness.
  26. Tamicka Byrd
    Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    Wonderful article! Thanks for all that you have done for the community. I am from Sumter County (Livingston) although I live in Tuscaloosa, my mom and family still reside there. I worry often about lack of resources in the area during this pandemic crisis. It is heartfelt to know that you are doing such great work! A million hugs to you!!! I plan to purchase some of your products for my family pretty sure we could benefit from them. Thanks so much
  27. Reginald Maxwell
    Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    I was not aware of Eden Land. Do you sell your herbs that reduce inflammation and reduce or prevent diabetes?
  28. Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    Click on Willie's corner. I am looking for a herb that will help with weight thanks for being here in sumter county.
  29. Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    Is there a way folks can support their work? A place to donate funds?
  30. Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    I'm located in Texas I would love to connect with Dr. Marlo.

    It's sad to learn the lack of medical care in these areas for blacks, but Holistic is so much better. Need more funding to support Dr. Marlo and team so they can expand their services.
  31. Gwendolyn DeLaine
    Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    Thank You Drs. Mr. and Mrs. Paul: Your Care and concern Is truly appreciated by me and my family. Not only do I use your products, I have family members that purchase them as well. I pray GOD’S continued blessings on your lives.
  32. Shirley Parks
    Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    I’m a 64 year old black woman with thyroid and terrible arthritis
  33. Gerlena Hale
    Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    I read your documentary to the end,very informative information and I enjoyed reading it...I have been a patient of Dr. Marlo and she is a great asset to Sumter County and I love learning about the different herbs and medicines on dealing with your health. Keep up the great work you and your husband are doing. Blessing to the both of you.
  34. Eunice Davis
    Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    Very heartwarming story. May others join them in helping the descendants of our ancestors live healthy lives.
  35. mark e cantrall
    Saturday, July 18th, 2020
    Great informative read !
  36. Laura
    Sunday, July 19th, 2020
    This was a great read. Be blessed.
  37. Flora Lewis
    Monday, July 20th, 2020
    I live in the state of Oregon, I need to order some of your products, I have high blood pressure and don't like taking medication from the doctor. Please give me the website so I can order some.
  38. Flora Lewis
    Monday, July 20th, 2020
    Will like to try some of your products
  39. Monday, July 20th, 2020
    Thank you for all that you are doing to help people recover from COVID-19 infection. I am not surprised that an herbal remedy is effective. Philippians 4:19 NKJV says: "God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus." You have found the supply. It would seem that your method for treatment stops viral replication and prevents the COVID-19 induced cytokine storm.
    See the video I made "The Stages of COVID-19 Disease"
    https://youtu.be/D09LULkQxJs
    The article mentioned that you sell herbal products online. Is the specific herbal treatment you are using for COVID-19 patients available for purchase online? #doccrich
  40. Neil
    Tuesday, July 21st, 2020
    What a sad situation - and what inspiring response!