People & Events
The Yellow Fever epidemic
|Resource Bank Contents|
Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of 1793 was the largest in the history of the United States, claiming the lives of nearly 4000 people. In late summer, as the number of deaths began to climb, 20,000 citizens fled to the countryside, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other members of the federal government (at that time headquartered in Philadelphia).
At the urging of Benjamin Rush, the support of Philadelphia's free black community was enlisted by Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and William Gray, a fruitseller who along with Allen and Jones had secured support to build the African Church the previous year.
In an effort to prove themselves morally superior to those who reviled them, Philadelphia's black community put aside their resentment and dedicated themselves to working with the sick and dying in all capacities, including as nurses, cart drivers, and grave diggers. Despite Rush's belief that blacks could not contract the disease, 240 of them died of the fever.
As the weather cooled, the disease subsided, and the deaths stopped. Then accusations began against the black citizens who had worked so hard to save the sick and dying. The attack was led by Mathew Carey, whose pamphlet attacked many in the black community. A response to the pamphlet was published by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones.
A Short Account of the Malignant Fever...
A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People...
French West Indian refugees in Philadelphia
John Edgar Wideman on the Yellow Fever epidemic
Part 3: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop
WGBH | PBS Online | ©