• Ideas
  • COVID-19

How Free Black People Helped Fight America’s First Epidemic and Transformed the Nation’s Capital

7 minute read

Americans never saw it coming. Hardly anyone in Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital, noticed the first to die in the summer of 1793, a few weeks after the celebration of Independence Day: a few foreigners, an oyster seller in the waterfront slums. When more poor began to die, respectable people shrugged it off as a passing “putrid fever” brought on by rotted fish or perishables heaped on the docks. Then the young, healthy wife of a Baptist minister died, then at an ever-accelerating pace businessmen, ministers, magistrates, law officers, federal officials, men and women, the old and the young, masters and servants, the pious and the dissolute alike. It quickly became clear that no one was safe.

The plague that was sweeping through the city was yellow fever, one of the deadliest and least-understood contagions of the time. It was the nation’s first epidemic and it threatened not only to destroy what was then its largest city, home to some 40,000 people, but also its fragile new government, which had formed barely four years earlier. It was a terrifying warning that life as Americans knew it could be snuffed out overnight by a phenomenon that no one could control.

Businesses collapsed. Schools and newspapers closed. The post office shut. For weeks, not a single ship dared to enter Philadelphia’s harbor. Each morning yielded a new crop of corpses. They lay putrefying where they fell in homes and streets. Frightened neighbors nailed shut the doors and windows of their infected neighbors’ homes, leaving them to die. The most basic bonds of civility and the most intimate family ties frayed and snapped. Doctors, fearing for their own lives, abandoned the ill. The poorhouse turned away the needy. Parents abandoned their infected children, and children their parents, husbands their wives, and wives their husbands. An estimated 20,000 people fled, or tried to. Terrified refugees seeking hoped-for safety in rural New Jersey or further afield were driven from town to town, many of them to die alone by the roadside.

For nearly two months, the United States had no government. George Washington, a vulnerable sixty years old, was convinced to escape to the safety of Mount Vernon. He handed over management of the government to Secretary of War Henry Knox, who panicked and fled north in hope of reaching New York, but then was stuck for weeks in forced quarantine at Elizabeth, New Jersey. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton caught the fever and almost died, while every member of his staff left town.

Some claimed the city’s suffering was God’s just punishment for Philadelphians’ sinful pride. Others swore that tobacco smoke, or camphor slung around the neck, or clouds of gunpowder would stem infection; for a time, soldiers rolled cannon around the streets, firing every few yards. Benjamin Rush, the city’s most celebrated physician, preached a horrific regimen of relentless purges and bloodletting, asserting that while effete Europeans probably couldn’t endure such a treatment it was perfectly suited to hearty, republican Americans. He bled one man twenty-two times and drained him of 176 ounces of blood. He probably killed more patients than he saved.

When the city’s fate seemed most hopeless, its least respected citizens stepped forward to do what no one else would. It was at first believed – erroneously, as would soon be seen — that Africans were far less susceptible to infection. Although slavery would soon end in Pennsylvania, it was still legal under certain conditions and racism was widespread. Black people were mostly restricted to the lowliest jobs. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an early abolitionist, begged the leaders of the city’s 2,000 free Black people for help. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, the founders of the first AME churches, agreed. If their followers acted now as a people, they reasoned, then possibly whites would abandon their prejudices and embrace them as brothers. “Much depends upon us for the help of our color more than many are aware,” they wrote. “We intreat you to consider the obligations we lay under to help forward the cause of freedom.” Even as Black people died at the same rate as white people, volunteers – including both Jones and Allen — remained at work tending the sick, feeding the abandoned, preparing medicines, collecting bodies, supplying coffins, and carting the dead to graveyards with at least a modicum of respect. They could not stop the epidemic, but they restored a fragile sense of human dignity to a despairing city that had sunk close to barbarism.

In November, with the onset of cold weather, the number of infections mercifully tapered off. By then the epidemic had killed at least 5,000 people, about 12 percent of the city’s population, and many more in surrounding areas. Unknown numbers were sickened but survived. Commerce slowly revived. Members of the government trickled back. But Philadelphia would never be quite the same. Its reputation as a safe and healthy place to live was irreparably damaged for years to come. Before the epidemic, Pennsylvanians had confidently believed that they would win back the designation of the country’s permanent capital from the upstart site on the Potomac River, which they typically disparaged as a malarial swamp. Such voices were now stilled forever.

A more significant impact of the epidemic was its effect on both Black and white Philadelphians’ attitude toward race. Once-docile Black people saw white people stripped of their aura of invulnerability as their manifest fear and selfishness demolished trust in their authority. “Many of the white people that ought to be patterns for us to follow after have acted in a manner that would make humanity shudder,” wrote Jones and Allen. In the furnace of the epidemic, the Black community had forged a new self-confidence as a community along with a determination to fight lingering bigotry with the power of faith and compassion. White support for antislavery grew. By the early 1800s, it became virtually impossible to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law in Pennsylvania, thereby laying the foundation for the Underground Railroad and for lasting collaboration in biracial antislavery activity.

It would be another century before scientific researchers discovered that the carriers of yellow fever were mosquitos, which had bred in the cesspits of Philadelphia. Although other cities escaped Philadelphia’s grim fate in 1793, thanks to the harsh quarantines imposed by other states, the fever would return periodically throughout the decade, leaving few places on the East Coast completely untouched.

Over time, memory of Philadelphia’s trauma faded beneath the impact of later epidemics such as the cholera scares of the mid-nineteenth century and the Spanish flu of 1918. But it still offers some lessons as the nation, and the world, wrestle with the continued onslaught of the coronavirus. Fortunately, in the midst of this new pandemic, as we guardedly celebrate another Independence Day, we have medical resources that the Americans of 1793 couldn’t imagine, and we understand the nature of infection even if we still can’t fully control it. However, like our forbears, Americans are today painfully learning that the failure to anticipate an epidemic after the first warning signs can be fatal. It also showed just how thin, in a time of crisis, the line between stability and political, moral, and economic collapse may be. As the Black citizens of Philadelphia demonstrated, however, compassion and self-sacrifice have the power to restore civilization and human dignity even in the midst of the cruelest catastrophe.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.