The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

Freedom Center Voices

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

When news of COVID-19 began to sweep the country, it got me thinking about the past outbreaks in United States history. The first that came to mind was the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that gripped our then-largest American city and nation’s capital—Philadelphia, PA.

At the time, yellow fever was known as ‘American plague.’ Catching this disease was serious and caused the afflicted a lot of suffering before they ultimately died. We now know that this highly infectious virus is carried and transferred by mosquitoes, but this fact wasn’t discovered until much later in 1881. The unknown caused fear and panic to tear through the city. It had struck our shores before, but this was the worst wave of yellow fever in American history.

As the disease spread, Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. James Hutchinson warned Mayor Matthew Clarkson of the possibility of an epidemic. The Mayor met with other doctors, government officials and citizens to find the best course of action to fight the disease.

Free African Society. Established in 1787 under the leadership of Richard Allen and Absolom Jones, this organization fostered identity, leadership, and unity among Blacks and became the forerunner of the first African-American churches in this city. (Historical Marker at 6th and Lombard Sts. Philadelphia PA - Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 1991)

As the death toll climbed and thousands fled the city in fear, Dr. Rush wrote a letter to a local newspaper insinuating the idea that African Americans were somehow immune to yellow fever.  The newspaper then wrote an article pleading with free African Americans to help with the sick. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, two of Philadelphia’s most prominent African Americans at the time, met with members of the Free African Society and decided to offer assistance to the citizens of Philadelphia.

“Early in September, a solicitation appeared in the public papers, to the people of colour to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick; with a kind of assurance, that people of our colour were not liable to take the infection. Upon which we and a few others met and consulted how to act on so truly alarming and melancholy occasion. After some conversation, we found a freedom to go forth, confiding in Him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.”

- Richard Allen and Absalom Jones

African American women nursed the sick and dying, while African American men mainly tended to transporting the sick and burying the dead. These heroic individuals, who were denied citizenship after the American Revolution and treated as inferior, risked their lives to help save the very people who oppressed them. In the end, the yellow fever outbreak claimed thousands of lives including approximately 240 African Americans.

In a time when black communities are being disproportionately affected by Covid-19 in the United States, it seems more important than ever to remember the story of these heroes who once rose to the occasion, risked themselves to work the front lines, and saved lives. That work continues today, and we are grateful.

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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