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In 1793, Philadelphia nearly ran out of space to bury its dead. The cause of the morbid conundrum was a mosquito-spread virus that induces jaundice, causing a yellowing of the eyes and skin and prompting its common name, yellow fever.
The 18th century epidemic killed nearly 10% of the city’s population, according to the History channel, an estimated 5,000 of 50,000 Philadelphians. During the crisis, roughly two thirds of residents — those who could afford to, including many government leaders — simply fled the city to escape the toll.
Those charged with caring for the sick were overwhelmed, and often came down with the fever themselves. City leaders were desperate for help.
Health experts at the time erroneously believed African Americans were immune to the deadly disease, so that’s where they turned.
“Mayor Matthew Clarkson put together a volunteer organization to run the city,” said Philadelphia physician, scholar and activist Dr. Vanessa N. Gamble. “He approaches Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, who were the foremost Black religious and civic leaders, for help.”
Jones and Allen were founders of the Free African Society, an abolitionist organization that facilitated religious services and mutual aid. They heeded the mayor’s call for assistance.
Their efficient organizing is echoed in Philly’s response to the current pandemic. Early on, Dr. Ala Stanford organized the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a cohort of healthcare workers who use their own resources to meet testing and vaccine needs within the city’s African American community.
Back in the late 1700s, volunteer nurses Free African Society nurses treated upwards of 800 patients — but the effort wrought some disastrous results. Not only did Jones and Allen’s crew face false accusations of extortion, but more than 10% of the city’s growing population of free Black residents died as a result of unchecked exposure.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, who had propagated the idea that African Americans were immune to yellow fever, eventually retracted his theory.
Last spring, conspiracies on social media made a similar assertion: Black people couldn’t catch the coronavirus, the myth suggested. It was never affirmed by credible media sources, and was discredited before it could do the same kind of harm inflicted by Rush’s specious thinking 230 years ago.
However, the Black population has disproportionately suffered the effects of COVID-19, with rates of disease and death higher than other U.S. racial groups.
One of the underlying factors of the disparity is something that hasn’t changed over two centuries. Black residents are over-represented among essential workers.
Currently in the Philly region, they account for more than half of that workforce in several frontline occupations, a recent Economy League study showed. And in 1793, “two thirds of the persons who rendered these essential services were people of colour,” Jones and Allen wrote.
Accusations of extortion, spread by fake news
The 18th century ailment likely came to Philly on a ship from overseas that docked in the city. It raged between August and November, refusing to subside until the autumn chill took out the insect vectors.
People infected with yellow fever, which persists in some countries today, suffer from high fever, nausea and vomiting. As the virus runs its course, it can cause outward bleeding, black vomit, and jaundice, as the kidneys and liver fail.
Of Philly’s growing population of more than 2,000 African Americans, 240 died during the epidemic. It was devastating for the nascent community.
“An important part of the story is that in 1793, Philadelphia had the largest free Black community in the United States,” said Gamble, who is a Philly-based professor at George Washington University. She recently completed an essay on the epidemic for Harvard Library.
Jones and Allen and the Free African Society did everything they could to help. The men chronicled their community’s actions in a pamphlet published later, writing:
Soon after, the mortality increasing, the difficulty of getting a corpse taken away was such that few were willing to do it when offered great rewards. The black people were looked to. We then offered our services in the public papers, by advertising that we would remove the dead and procure nurses… [W]e sought not fee nor reward…
Black volunteer nurses, who were hired to replace the white ones who’d fallen ill or died, received rapid fire training under Dr. Rush. They staffed Bush Hill, an emergency healthcare center. Black volunteers were also sought to transport and bury dead bodies, and the volume got so overwhelming that Jones and Allen ended up hiring additional African American workers to assist.
Months after the epidemic subsided, controversy erupted after a pamphlet by prolific Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey made the rounds.
Opining from a remote location — he was among those who’d fled the city — Carey praised Allen, Jones and their comrade William Gray for coming to the city’s aid. But he alleged some of their volunteer nurses had extorted suffering patients and families.
Carey asserted that what he called “the vilest” Black nurses charged “two, three, four, and even five dollars a night for attendance, which would have been well paid by a single dollar.”
More than 10,000 copies of Carey’s pamphlet sold, and his account spread.
In January 1794, Jones and Allen fought back by publishing in their own pamphlet, though it sold only about 500 copies. There were some payments made to their organization, the duo wrote, providing specific accounts of cash received, but they were for the people hired for burials and body transportation.
While disputing Carey’s accusations, they set the record straight on another piece of fake news: In contrast to earlier reports, they’d found African Americans were statistically just as affected by the illness as white residents.
“Thus were our services extorted at the peril of our lives, yet you accuse us of extorting a little money from you,” Jones and Allen wrote.
Lesson from history: ‘Raise questions about the data’
Modern misinformation persists, more recently in reports of American vaccine hesitancy.
It’s true that Black people in the U.S. have received the COVID-19 vaccine at a disproportionately low rate, a disparity that shows up in data from the Philadelphia Health Department. As the trend became apparent, many health experts highlighted Black mistrust of a historically racist healthcare system as the main cause.
Gamble, the GWU professor, said the distrust narrative was allowed to dominate the early conversation around vaccination.
“I think by focusing on hesitancy for such a long time that there was not as much emphasis on the lack of allocation of vaccines,” Gamble said. “I saw this morning that 50% of Republican men aren’t going to take the vaccine, but that’s not being racialized,” she continued. “It’s racialized when it’s about Black people.”
A recent independent media survey found several demographic factors correlated with vaccine hesitancy: it was more likely in Republicans, in people aged 30 to 49 regardless of race, and in rural residents. The same study found that vaccine confidence grew faster among Black people than white or Hispanic people over time. (The survey did not publish numbers for Asian or Indigenous respondents.)
Only more recently have medical professionals started exploring vaccine accessibility as a barrier for Black Americans. Locally, the accessibility idea has long been discussed — and addressed — by the Black Doctors Consortium.
Back in the 18th century, Carey’s pamphlet and Jones and Allen’s rebuttal were published after the yellow fever epidemic subsided. But Gamble offered advice on how the media can cover the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“One of the things that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones did is they raised questions. They were not silent,” Gamble said. “It is important to raise questions about the data.”