In 1793 Philadelphia had about 50,000 people and between August 1 and November 9, at least 5,000 died. The epidemic was one of the most severe in American history and in the chaos, 20,000 fled the city. Nurses were in short supply and bodies were piling up. As often occurs in American history, Black people were called upon to save the day. The Free African Society offered the city hope and Black nurses became the salvation of Philadelphia.
In the spring of 1793, French colonizers (many with slaves) arrived from what is now Haiti. Roughly 2,000 of them were fleeing the Haitian Revolution, which was largely led by Toussaint Louverture. They most likely carried the yellow fever virus, which is transmitted by mosquito bites (a fact only discovered years later). Based on observations from the 1742 yellow fever epidemic in Charleston, South Carolina, where African slaves appeared to be affected at lower rates than whites– and old fashioned racism — it was believed that Blacks were immune to the disease. As yellow fever cases began to swell, the city organized a fever hospital at Bush Hill and the assistance of the Free African Society was requested.
Black nurses provided care to sick people all over the city, Black and white. According to reliable accounts, they cared for “upwards of 800 people.” The onslaught of sudden deaths also created another problem– too many bodies, not enough willing labor to dispose of them. The Free African Society had to hire five men just to remove corpses, as no one else was willing to go near the sick or dead. There was, however, a cost to all of the work the Free African Society took on. Africans in Charleston may have developed an immunity before being stolen to America but that wasn’t true for Blacks in Philadelphia, in 1793. A total of 240 Blacks died, a death rate that mirrored whites in the city.
Without the work of the Free African Society, the Black nurses and laborers who removed corpses, there is a serious question as to whether Philadelphia would have bounced back or how quickly the city would have been made livable, again. While Black nurses did not find a “cure” for the disease– winter weather eventually killed off the mosquitos — their work was critical in managing the crisis and creating a pathway for Philadelphia to rebound.