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Honouring Papa Joe Davis – Southern Root Worker & Vodou Priest

Papa Joe Davis – Vodou Priest and Hoodoo Doctor
Photo copyright Daniel Elke

On the 1st of February 2023, in Raleigh, North Carolina USA, after some illness Papa Joe Davis passed to the other realms.

I came to know of this man through my partner Artist, Ismaila Putuenchi in Foumban Cameroon, they had become good friends, for over 20 years and we spoke fondly of him both feeling the burden of his illness, which I saw and named before it was actually given to me. Papa Joe was a true and talented hoodoo magician, voudon priest and root worker of real southern American vodou. 

Papa Joe was firstly bought up in the southern hoodoo tradition, in rural North Carolina close to the border of South Carolina. His godfather was a root doctor and a conjurer, a spiritual worker. His dad was a believer in the power of hoodoo and his mum was a Christian in the Pentecostal faith.

He moved to work in the oldest “financial section” of New York. He became involved with a Pentecostal church in Harlem, where he became a reverend, and later in the Bronx he found his way to Vodou. He returned to North Carolina, and set up several of his “Planet of God” temples on the outskirts of a county housing development in Raleigh where he worked as a African-American vodou priest, not Cuban, Haitian or NOLA, but true  African-American Vodou. 

Papa Joe Davis – Vodou Priest and Hoodoo Doctor working a ritual.
Photo copyright Daniel Elke

A much-loved healer that spent his maturing years travelling, he spent time in Western Africa, exploring his native religion at its roots, and discovering this and its history. His favourite places were Benin and Cameroon, where he made lifelong friends and associates. He will be missed and leaves behind a true legacy of his work in African American Vodoun, Hoodoo and Conjuring.

Rest in Peace Papa Joe, we both share a love of the root work from the South, I honour you today on this page, and share a little part of my journey below….

I truly thank the generosity of German photographer Daniel Elke for his wonderful photos here of Pappa Joe and his permission to share them, you can find more of his work here: Daniel Elke Photojournalist

Remembering and honouring Papa Joe Davis – Vodou Priest and Hoodoo Doctor – What is remembered lives!
Photo copyright Daniel Elke

In the late 1990’s I became very aware of all the specialities Papa Joe practised, and the uniqueness of Hoodoo, Conjure, Rootwork practises of African American Folk Magic. I was in relationship for a few years with a blues singer, journalist and actor from Texas, his grandaddy had a large farm on the outskirts of Centerville, Texas, and one of his farm workers was the legendary bluesman Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, at 8 years of age my bluesman became obsessed with Sam’s playing and the African American culture of those early mid 1950’s. Two years later at just 10 he begin his career as a chanteur of the blues, while shining people’s shoes. He wrote a song called “Shoeshine Charlie” a great little swing-shuffle.  (I must put his songs on you tube as a legacy!)

That’s my bluesman and returned Vietnam veteran in the purple jacket, leaning over the lead guitarist in Austin, Texas.

It was on his personal altar in his home in Austin, Texas and his gift packages I received in the mail to Australia, that his practice of Tantra, Hoodoo and Witchcraft were all shared with me. At the time  I myself was a practising witch, and living with a yogi, hoodoo was of great interest and fascination to me, this was 25 years ago now. For the last 23 years I have supplied roots, powders, oils, amulets and animal parts in my online store to spiritual communities worldwide, I love my conjuring work, and so thankful to my now dead (2005) bluesman that introduced me to southern folk magic. I have fond memories of his last released musical CD in 1999 with 10 original tracks one being “Voo Doo Chickin’ Blues” very hoodoo for a white fella!

When I returned to America to live in 2000 the bluesman was touring New Zealand. I was lucky to land in one of the “Southern States” Delaware with my partner we ran a construction company, I was a property manager, and together we also ran several companies for a cartel in Sydney Australia, buying, selling, renting and maintaining properties for them. Most of our labourers were African American, we would give a leg up to men just out of prison, picking up workers each morning from the mission in the back of our blue Ford 500 pick up truck. We paid them more than the locals did, (double actually) also supplying water and a hearty meal for lunch to keep them going. Our decision was to give African Americans that had been incarcerated a decent wage, great working conditions and second chance in society, a few got third, fourth and fifth chances too with us. We also lived in the danger of the “hood” in Wilmington, and later Edgemoor Gardens which had its challenges, but the idea had been to immerse ourselves in the culture, offer homes to the African American homeless, so we literally did. This is where I lost all my fear, (the best thing to happen to me) and became a true warrior! I could tell you many scary stories, and how I cried so much at first, sleeping on the floor of the pickup truck one night, because I could not go home, terrified someone would see me. Another night spent sleeping in the snow, with only my bunny to keep me warm. The sound of gunshots, the smell of ice, crack cocaine, and the crazed people high on it. The endless days in court, fighting against pathological liars. Stop Astarte lets not reverse down that rabbit hole! Let’s just go shopping at Harry’s.

My Hoodoo haunt in the states – Harry’s Occult Shop – South Street, Philadelphia. PA.

My spare time was all about my personal craft, attending workshops, sabbat rituals, pagan potlucks, a witchcraft night club, and one of my favourites was visiting Harry’s Occult Shop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. and all that section of South St, which felt like you were transported I imagined to a part of Africa. My white friends warned me away telling me that area was very dangerous. I personally loved it as did my partner from Australia, it was full of African culture. Articles in my home are from South St, as well as my huge cast iron cauldron, so a part of that small glimpse of Africa has stayed with me all these years, shipped home in a container.

Harrys was daunting to me at first, like nothing that existed in Australia, and I’d earned a living working in a few occult stores as a reader. But Harry’s was something else, I felt a mixture of ignorance on my behalf but also excitement as this was the stuff, I wanted to get my teeth into, Americas own authentic African folk magic. Harry’s Occult Store was founded in 1917, it originally began as a traditional pharmacy. However, many of the first customers that came into the shop were Black southerners, who would repeatedly ask the owner Harry for various powders and oils of an “occult” nature. The southerners came up to the north bringing their Hoodoo, traditions with them, and a consumers demand for the appropriate powders, roots and oils was listened too. Harry took it so seriously the pharmacy was transformed into an occult store, sadly closed now. That’s Harry below.

The counter at Harry’s, just as it was when I first entered.

The window displays at Harry’s a treasure trove of mysterious goods.

Harry’s Occult Store

I bought myself a huge two storey, seven-bedroom farm house in the county of New Castle on the outskirts of the city of Wilmington in Delaware near the Delaware River, it was 300 years old with many huge rooms in the basement, one had a tunnel to the river, and this home, later a Manse, was part of the underground railway, in the freedom of slavery. Here the enslaved could escape upriver to Pennsylvania, which was a free state and later in 1821 they could simply cross the river to New Jersey, when it became a free state too. Delaware remained an enslaved state where all forms of forced labour were finally ended by the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.

I loved owning a home where its history was rich in freedom, and a safe underground passageway, where the stolen generations from Africa and their children could live as humans should. For many months I dropped one of my African American workers and my cat off of a morning to work on the house, because I lived in the city in an apartment my black cat Harry would wander the neighbourhood, and I’d pick them both up at the end of the day. One day a white woman from across the road approached me, and asked me if coloureds were moving in? She was so racist and concerned, my experience where I lived, was a racism that was blatant, it disgusted us both.

A Map of New Castle, DE. Showing the river.
Sadly, this beautiful home has been turned into apartments. I started the rock finish, and intended to rock the whole home, it was never complete, so I ended up losing money on this one. I bought this house at Sheriff sale. It was full of fleas, and dead pets remains throughout, I still have the unread diaries of the woman who died here, and her chest of drawers. Upstairs I had a beautiful large bedroom with a fireplace, I kept it free of furniture and I used it purely as a ritual space.

So, let’s get back to Vodou, which is so misunderstood, with so much commercialism most believe its simply about poppet dolls and pins! Vodou is a religion – it’s about servicing, assisting, and helping people, giving them confidence in their life and the strength to move on through the cycle’s life takes us through. This is what I also do every day, yet I’m not of African descent, but I use some of the tools, I’m simply a luciferian witch, who practices my ancestral Anglo-Saxon craft, with the practises I’ve learnt after Indigenous initiation here in Australia, with a strong emphasis on medicine, and what I’ve learnt from Hoodoo in America, it’s a potent mix for sure.

Vodou is a native religion that is practiced in Western Africa, which has also found its way into the contemporary USA through the spiritual heritage of the African American community. Hoodoo, Conjure, Rootwork, and similar terms refer to the practice of African American folk magic.

Hoodoo is an American term, originating in the 19th century or earlier. One of its meanings refers to African American folk magic. Others believe Hoodoo consists of a large body of African folkloric practices and beliefs with a considerable admixture of American Indian botanical knowledge and European folklore, that is simply not true, it stands alone from Western Africa, and is practiced by African Americans. There is now a rather popular contaminated and commercial version called NOLA Voodoo, the two are very different, as New Orleans Voodoo also includes Catholicism.

Although most of its adherents are black, contrary to popular opinion, that it has always been practiced by both whites and blacks in America. Other regionally popular names for hoodoo in the black community include “conjuration,” “conjure,” “witchcraft,” “Rootwork,” “candle burning,” and “tricking.” The first three are simply English words; the fourth is a recognition of the pre-eminence that dried roots play in the making of charms and the casting of spells, and the fifth and sixth are special meanings for common English words.

A professional consultant who practices hoodoo on behalf of clients may be referred to as a “hoodoo doctor” or “hoodoo man” if male and a “hoodoo woman” or “hoodoo lady” if female. 

Hoodoo has its own cultural repertoire of tools, spells, formulas, methods, techniques, and beliefs. Within that cultural repertoire, people make their own choices of how to conduct themselves and how to create a work of magical intent — but they remain within the cultural repertoire as they do so.

Any practitioner of conjure who did not grow up within African American culture just like me is either a guest and should have the good manners of a guest, or has joined into the culture in some way and to some extent and should therefore be ready to defend African American culture, including hoodoo, against the redefinitions, reworkings, and appropriations that outsiders continually seek to inflict upon it.

In other words, if you cannot respect hoodoo as it is and for what it is, then please, do not mess with it at all. And please stop calling it Voodoo! 

In deepest respect, Papa, thank you for the old memories, and thank you for letting me put things straight for you. Seems we also both had a thang for pigeons too! as they say down south.

© Astarté Earthwise