The epidemic that exposed racial fissures in America – two centuries ago
In July 1793, Philadelphia, then the capital of America, was beset by an outbreak of yellow fever. The epidemic paralysed the city for three months, killing a tenth of the population, around 5,000 people. Corpses littered the streets and the dying were left unattended. Terrified of infection, many Philadelphians locked themselves in their homes. Some tried to ward off the virus by discharging gunpowder into the air – yellow fever was thought to be transmitted by bad vapours. Thousands of people fled, including national heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
It was members of Philadelphia’s free African-American community who helped prevent the city from collapsing. When the city’s mayor called for people to nurse the sick, collect bodies and dig graves, poor black men and women responded, working at great personal risk. “I don’t know what the people would do, if it was not for the Negroes, as they are the Principal nurses,” wrote Isaac Heston, a yellow-fever patient, shortly before he died.
Yellow fever can cause haemorrhaging, vomiting and internal bleeding. Those who treated the sick witnessed scenes of infernal horror
I first read about these 18th-century nurses when I was quarantined in my own flat in Philadelphia, a short distance from the city’s hospitals. Two centuries on, the disease has changed but the story hasn’t. Now, as then, a disproportionate share of the city’s essential workers are black and poor – the nurses, technicians and delivery drivers who keep the city running while many of us stay in our homes. Now, as then, these men and women have been hit hardest by a contagious virus: the rate of recorded covid-19 cases is almost twice as high among black Philadelphians as among white ones, according to local-government data.
Like wars, epidemics lay bare society’s inequalities. Both outbreaks offer a reminder of how closely our experience of disease is related to income and race, an awareness that fed into protests against racism across America and beyond after George Floyd, an unarmed African-American, died under the knee of a white police officer earlier this year. From this perspective, there are echoes of the Philadelphia story in today’s pandemic. Yet the yellow-fever epidemic also offers a glimmer of hope that crises can foster social change.
Philadelphia’s free black community could have chosen to sit out the epidemic in 1793. Their numbers were small – there were about 2,500 black people in the city, many of whom were free – and most lived far from the wharves, where fever-spreading mosquitoes were concentrated.
This group remained set apart from the rest of the population. Only 13 years earlier the Pennsylvania Legislature had passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which banned the importing of slaves but stopped short of emancipating them or their children. Philadelphia’s free black people had no certainty about their future. Many white people wouldn’t countenance living side-by-side with freed slaves.
Thousands of people fled, including national heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson
Nevertheless, when the call for help came, two black men stepped forward. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were both church ministers who’d been born into slavery and bought their own freedom. By 1793 they were part of the city’s black middle class: Allen ran a successful business and Jones worked as a clerk for his former master. They were also devoted to advocating for racial equality, doing all they could for African-Americans in Philadelphia, including founding the Free African Society, a relief organisation.
After meeting the mayor, Jones and Allen mobilised other African-Americans and placed adverts in newspapers offering to work as nurses, corpse collectors and gravediggers. The work was brutal and traumatic. Yellow fever can cause haemorrhaging, vomiting and internal bleeding and those who treated the sick witnessed scenes of infernal horror. Jones and Allen later recalled individuals who lay limp on the floor, looking like they’d been dipped in blood. Others became so delirious that nurses sometimes had to restrain sufferers to stop them from running away or “breaking their necks”, wrote Jones and Allen.
African-Americans made a disproportionate contribution to the relief effort, caring for numerous white patients. One black nurse, Anne Saville, led efforts at a country house called Bush Hill, which was converted into a makeshift hospital for people with yellow fever. By their own estimate, Jones and Allen – who administered many treatments themselves, under the instructions of a white physician named Benjamin Rush – saved “the lives of some hundreds of our suffering mortals”. Some of Rush’s treatments would later be discredited, such as bleeding and purging. Others, like giving water to patients who had become severely dehydrated, were more successful. The service didn’t stop there. Black gravediggers helped both to bury the dead and remove them from public areas, which in turn helped to check the spread of disease and restore public order.
Corpses littered the streets and the dying were left unattended
The price was high. The work drew African-Americans to infected parts of the city, even when they weren’t treating the sick. A popular myth that black skin afforded protection against yellow fever was swiftly proved false. Some 300 African-Americans were buried in 1793, according to Jones and Allen, more than a four-fold increase on the previous year.
These workers received little credit for their sacrifice. In several cases infected black nurses were thrown out of white residences where they worked and left to wander the streets. At least one died destitute and alone. Rumours circulated that African-Americans were responsible for the outbreak: one white observer described the “great Alarm rais’d that the Negroes had put Poison in the Pumps”.
Among those stoking up the racism was Matthew Carey, a prominent Irish writer. “The great demand for nurses afforded an opportunity for imposition, which was eagerly seized by some of the vilest of the blacks,” he wrote in November 1793. “They extorted two, three, four, and even five dollars a night for such attendance, as would have been well paid by a single dollar. Some of them were even detected in plundering the houses of the sick.” His pamphlet on the outbreak shaped public opinion and reinforced prejudice against Philadelphia’s black workers.
Epidemics, from the Black Death to AIDS, often lead to outbursts of hatred against marginalised groups. When suffering and death seems incomprehensible, people want to blame someone and often turn to groups they already fear or dislike.
Amid the death and discrimination, Jones and Allen continued to agitate for change, meeting prejudice with reason. Black American carers had helped to restore confidence when civil society fell apart. How could slavery persist when black nurses had given so much?
The pair wrote a pamphlet, published in 1794, which rebutted accusations made against black nurses. It documented the service of black people during the epidemic and showed the trials they had endured. “[W]e have suffered equally with the whites,” the pamphlet read, “our distress hath been very great, but much unknown to the white people.” They asked readers to consider the gap between the white and black experience of the disease. They addressed slaveholders directly: “If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your lands of slaves.”
Samuel Cohn, a historian, has analysed the history of disease in the West and concluded that epidemics more often brought societies together than divided them. It’s a controversial thesis, but the events of 1793 bear it out in part. Amid the breakdown of social order, Jones and Allen forged alliances and built a sense of racial solidarity that was inconceivable beforehand. These elite men chose to stand with the poor workers, arguing that Carey’s racial slurs would “prejudice the minds of the people in general against us”.
The activist duo also cemented lasting relationships with white establishment figures, alliances that would prove helpful as Jones and Allen continued to push for racial equality. As the 18th century came to a close, abolitionists – black and white – co-operated in the struggle against slavery. They paved the way for the “underground railroad”, a network of people who helped slaves escape from the American South.
During the recent protests against racism, I walked to City Hall in Philadelphia and observed the demonstrators – doctors, nurses, students, the unemployed, essential workers and non-essential ones, people of all ages and skin colours. They were united under the banner of anti-racism, angry at the killing of a black man at the hands of the police. The context was important, too: the demonstrations were happening while another disease was paralysing the city, one that has once again laid bare the fissures in society and the unequal toll that an epidemic can take on the poor and the marginalised.
The names of Jones and Allen were absent from Philadelphia’s protests, the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Their preferred medium, the pamphlet, is now confined to libraries and museums. Yet the pair would surely have understood the anger and hope of the protesters. Imbued with a newfound confidence after an epidemic, Jones and Allen refused to be silent about the contributions of the black community or accept their story being told by another. Two centuries on, the cry is the same: “We have suffered.”■
Images: Getty, Douglas Allen, The library company of Philadelphia, Alamy
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