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Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric
February 13, 2023 Health & Medicine

Calamity in Philadelphia

When yellow fever struck the city in 1793, faulty race logic almost destroyed it.

Collage illustration showing portrait of Richard Allen, a mosquito, and image of yellow fever virus

In 1793 a yellow fever epidemic almost destroyed Philadelphia. The young city was saved by two Black preachers, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who organized the free Black community in providing essential services and nursing the sick and dying. Allen and Jones were assured of two things: that stepping up would help them gain full equality and citizenship, and that they were immune to the disease. Neither promise turned out to be true. 

About Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Race

“Calamity in Philadelphia” is Episode 2 of Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Racea podcast and magazine project that explores the historical roots and persistent legacies of racism in American science and medicine. Published through Distillations, the Science History Institute’s highly acclaimed digital content platform, the project examines the scientific origins of support for racist theories, practices, and policies. Innate is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.


Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Associate Producer: Padmini Raghunath
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
Richard Allen voiceover by Jason Carr
“Innate Theme” composed by Jonathan Pfeffer. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Resource List

How the Politics of Race Played Out During the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic, by Alicia Ault

A short account of the malignant fever, lately prevalent in Philadelphia: with a statement of the proceedings that took place on the subject in different parts of the United States, by Mathew Carey

Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840, by Rana A. Hogarth

A narrative of the proceedings of the black people, during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia, in the year 1793, by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen

Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, by Richard Newman

Observations upon the origin of the malignant bilious, or yellow fever in Philadelphia, and upon the means of preventing it: addressed to the citizens of Philadelphia, by Benjamin Rush

Bishop Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom, produced by Dr. Mark Tyler


Alexis Pedrick: Welcome to our new season, Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Race. This is episode two, Calamity in Philadelphia. Before we start, a content warning for our listeners. This episode covers topics, stories, and historical details that you might find difficult or disturbing.

Alexis Pedrick: Last summer, I took a field trip with our producer, Mariel Carr, to a place called the Lazaretto. We were shown around by David Barnes, a historian and friend of this podcast.

David Barnes: You get the impression that this was a…some kind of significant place. And then if we turn around to face the Lazaretto, so we’re facing north here, what we would have seen in 1801, when this station opened, was an elegant, stately, and very symmetrical station. So, watch the goose poop. Um-

Alexis Pedrick: Oh, yes. Okay. Um, yeah.

Mariel Carr: I, I changed into my gardening clogs.

Alexis Pedrick: There we go. Yeah.

David Barnes: Yeah. Smart. Smart.

Alexis Pedrick: Wise. Very wise.

David Barnes: Especially with the water table.

Alexis Pedrick: The Lazaretto is just down the road from the airport, right off of I95, but if you squint, it pretty much looks just how it did in 1801, beautiful, stately, peaceful.

David Barnes: So if you imagine no jet planes taking off overhead.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

David Barnes: No Interstate 95, you know, a couple blocks away, this is just a quiet-

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

David Barnes: Placid place.

Alexis Pedrick: Mm-hmm.

David Barnes: Um, uh-

Mariel Carr: Spe- speaking of airplanes.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah, right? [laughter] I know, it’s, like… But you’re right, like if you-

David Barnes: Until the next… Until the next ship arrives, you know?

Alexis Pedrick: Right, right, right.

Alexis Pedrick: The Lazaretto doesn’t make it on to most Philadelphia history tours, but it should. It’s the oldest surviving quarantine station in the country, and it’s beautiful. The main building is this massive, late Georgian style manor with red brick and black shutters on the windows, and it has two adjoining wings that stretch out in equal length in both directions. It was named after the lesser known Lazarus, Patron Saint of Lepers, and it was built in 1801 in response to four… Yes, four deadly yellow fever outbreaks in Philadelphia.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

David Barnes: It was an existential crisis. Um-

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

David Barnes: In 1793 and again in 1798, somewhere around 5,000 Philadelphians died, and these… We’re talking about epidemics that lasted a couple of months, so a tenth of the city’s population just dropping dead within two months. There was lots of talk about Philadelphia being uninhabitable, as being essentially, not a place fit for human habitation, so the city was facing long odds, and this quarantine station was a big part of their response. It was a defiant gesture, a refusal to simply die or fade away.

Alexis Pedrick: The Lazaretto was built in 1801 to save Philadelphia, but when yellow fever first hit in 1793, there was no grand estate to save the day. Instead, the city relied on its new free Black community to provide essential services and nurse the sick and dying, and it was all predicated on a myth of innate racial difference.

Alexis Pedrick:  Chapter One: A Short Account of the Malignant Fever.

Alexis Pedrick: After I left the Lazaretto, honestly, I wanted to go back and stay there for like, a short vacation, and then I though to myself, “Alexis, are you unwell?”

Mariel Carr: I actually had the same thought.

Alexis Pedrick: Oh, hi Mariel. [laughs]

Mariel Carr: Oh, hi, Alexis. I mean, it was very peaceful there, and since there isn’t currently a yellow fever outbreak, I think that helped set the scene there.

Alexis Pedrick: Thankfully.

Mariel Carr: Thankfully. So, you know, we didn’t really get an accurate picture of yellow fever quarantine life, but I do have this pamphlet that paints a pretty devastating portrait of Philly during that first epidemic. Do you want to read some of it?

Alexis Pedrick: Sure. It’s called, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia, with a statement of the proceedings that took place on a subject in different parts of the United States. Clearly short doesn’t refer to the title, but anyway, it begins, “Dismay and a fright were visible in almost every person’s countenance. Most of those who could by any means make it convenient fled from the city. Of those who remain, many shut themselves up in their houses and were afraid to walk the streets. Some of the churches were almost deserted, and others wholly closed. The coffee house was shut up, as was the city library, and most of the public offices.” So, basically, it was just like Philadelphia in 2020 except no internet.

Mariel Carr: Right, and there were some other small differences. We should probably explain what this disease was like, right?

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah, I think so.

Mariel Carr: It caused fevers, dark urine, vomiting, bleeding from the mouth, nose, and eyes. It’s tell tale symptom was jaundice, hence the name yellow fever, and it was extremely contagious. Most people who got it did survive, but if you got the lethal form, you had a 50% chance of dying within 10 days. So now we know yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes, but we didn’t know that in 1793, and there were some wild theories being thrown around.

Crawford Wilson: The deaths came from coffee beans arriving in the ships, and they got sick, but the sickness kept going.

Mariel Carr: So this is Crawford Wilson. He works in Old City Philadelphia, and often shares the yellow fever story with visitors.

Crawford Wilson: So the next thought was that in the early morning fog, this was in that fog.

Alexis Pedrick: So in the midst of all this chaos and confusion, one man stepped up to take charge, Benjamin Rush. Now you might know Rush as a founding father, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Crawford Wilson: Mr. Rush was also the leading medical person in this area. In fact, there was no second place, he was the guy.

Alexis Pedrick: Things were really dire, and Rush was desperate to save the city from this disease. A huge problem was finding people to nurse the sick and the dying.

Mariel Carr: Right. No one wanted to do it, it was way too risky.

Alexis Pedrick: Unless, of course, you were immune. And if a whole group of people were immune, well, even better, and that’s exactly what Benjamin Rush thought, that Black people across the board could not get yellow fever, that they were innately immune because of their race. And so, in the city’s hour of need, he turned to two prominent Black preachers he considered his friends, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, and he asked them to step up, help out.

Mariel Carr: And they did, but it came at great personal cost because spoiler alert, Benjamin Rush was wrong. Black people could get yellow fever, and they did, and many of them died. So, it’s kind of impossible to escape this yellow fever story when you do anything related to history or science in Philadelphia.

Alexis Pedrick: And we do both. So we knew the basics, but we realized that whenever we usually hear this story, it’s almost as if the Black community had been frozen in time, they’re an afterthought. So for this story, we decided to do something a little bit different, to start this by telling you what the Black community was up to before yellow fever broke out.

Alexis Pedrick:  Chapter Two: The Founder You Never Heard Of.

Alexis Pedrick: 1793 was a time of tremendous political change and possibility for the growing free Black community in Philadelphia, a community led by Richard Allen. So Mariel and I decided to take another field trip, to Richard Allen’s old stomping grounds, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Mother Bethel for short.

Alexis Pedrick: Oh, hello.

Crawford Wilson: Welcome to Mother Bethel.

Alexis Pedrick: [laughs] Hi. Thanks for having us.

Crawford Wilson: No problem.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

Alexis Pedrick: Okay.

Alexis Pedrick: This is Crawford Wilson again. He’s a docent at Mother Bethel, and has become a bit of an expert on Richard Allen. The church is in Old City, a few blocks from Independence Hall, and the homes of people like Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

Crawford Wilson: So at Mother Bethel, we might get more visitors than any church in Philadelphia, and I’m telling you, for real.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah. Yeah.

Crawford Wilson: We get them by the bus loads, you know?

Alexis Pedrick: The congregation was founded in 1794, right after yellow fever. It’s had four different church buildings in this spot since then. The first one was a repurposed blacksmith shop that was pulled here from its original spot by horse and carriage. In the church museum, there’s a painting of Richard Allen preaching in the building with an anvil in the center of the floor.

Crawford Wilson: [laughter] Yeah. This was a Black community, so basically, everybody walked to church.

Alexis Pedrick: Oh.

Crawford Wilson: Um, most of the Black Old… We’re talking Old City Philadelphia-

Alexis Pedrick: Yes.

Crawford Wilson: There was no West Philly.

Alexis Pedrick: Right.

Crawford Wilson: There was no North Philly, right?

Alexis Pedrick: Uh-huh.

Crawford Wilson: We lived here.

Alexis Pedrick: Mother Bethel is the oldest AME church in the country, and the oldest church property continuously owned by African Americans.

Mariel Carr: Um, so this, this inscription up here?

Crawford Wilson: Yes.

Mariel Carr: Is that… Is that, uh… Tell us about it.

Crawford Wilson: Richard Allen designed that. Uh, that was his, his words, uh, “God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Man our brother.”

Alexis Pedrick: So when we told Crawford Wilson we wanted to know more about Richard Allen, he connected us with Richard Newman, a historian who wrote Freedoms Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers.

Richard Newman: He’s a founder of a lot of key institutions within the Black community, Black churches, Black reform organizations, Black self help and philanthropic societies. He’s trying to help the African American community in Pennsylvania transition from slavery to freedom, and he’s pushing for new ways of understanding democracy. So he’s challenging a lot of the founders to imagine the nation as truly a republic of equals, and imagining that process of emancipation as encompassing equality.

Alexis Pedrick: Richard Newman thinks of Richard Allen as one of the founding fathers of the United States, just one most people have never heard of.

Richard Newman: Ben Franklin knows who Richard Allen is. George Washington does too. Richard Allen’s very mindful of their presence, and when he writes pamphlets and gives speeches, he’s thinking about them as an audience. Even if he doesn’t have a political office, he thinks that his vision is absolutely essential to the success of American democracy.

Alexis Pedrick: And there’s a reason for that. Richard Allen was a free Black man in Philadelphia at a time when what Black freedom would look like was still an open question, and he was uniquely suited to be a leader in the community, and hold his own with men like Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin. Allen was born into slavery in 1760. He grew up in Delaware enslaved by a man named Stokely Sturgis. Now, a couple of things about this experience shaped who Allen would become. One was that Sturgis enslaved fewer people than some others, so most of the people Allen knew were white, and he got used to be around them. He was comfortable interacting with them. The second thing was that Stokely Sturgis was a Methodist, and once Allen earned his trust and convinced him religion wouldn’t threaten his work, Sturgis let him become a Methodist too.

Richard Newman: He really feels like Christianity, and the evangelical revival circuit liberated him, liberated his mind, and then allowed him to liberate his body through kind of strategic interaction with his master. So, he gets his freedom, his manumission papers, by secretly challenging his master to allow anti slavery preachers to come to his house in Delaware. So, Richard Allen had to, to set this up. He couldn’t just say, you know, “I’m gonna bring anti slavery preachers to your house and they’re gonna lecture you.”

Alexis Pedrick: They came to the house and they read the famous sermon from the book of Daniel.

Richard Newman: “Thou art weighed in the balances and found wanting.” So God is taking your measure, and “See that you’re a slaveholder that violates the Bible in many ways, and so you’re gonna be struck down and sent to hell.” And this scares Richard Allen’s master, uh, so thoroughly that he agrees to write up a manumission document for Richard Allen and his brother. So Richard Allen learns that strategic protest framed the right way can achieve great results.

Alexis Pedrick: By the mid 1780s, Richard Allen was a free man preaching in the Methodist church.

Crawford Wilson: And they were so impressed with him, they made him an exalter, uh, which means he was allowed to preach, and he basically walked all the way up to Philadelphia doing what he could do to stay alive and preach.

Alexis Pedrick: Two historic events made Allen feel hopeful in his early days in Philadelphia. The first happened right before his arrival, but it still felt fresh. The Declaration of Independence. Now Allen hoped it would mean a racially egalitarian society, full equality across the color line.

Richard Newman: The first public readings of the Declaration are on Philadelphia street corners. So into the 1780s, there’s this real fierce sense of ownership, possessiveness about the Declaration. If any place in the nation should use the Declaration to challenge slavery and racial inequality, it should be Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.

Alexis Pedrick: The second historic event was the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. Now that was progress, but it was slow. I mean, it’s literally in the name of the law. The free Black community in Philadelphia was growing, and many white leaders, founding fathers like Washington, and Hamilton, and Jefferson were watching. They wanted to see how emancipation played out. Would it be successful?

Richard Newman: People like Franklin, while they’re sympathetic to abolition, they have some kind of racialist notions which define African Americans outside of the mainstream. They have to prove their educational worth, they have to prove their value as citizens first and foremost.

Alexis Pedrick: In other words, abolition was one thing, full equality and citizenship was another. Richard Allen approached everything strategically, like he did with Stokely Sturgis.

Richard Newman: He talks to Franklin in terms of experimentation. He says, “We just want you and white society to engage in an experiment in Black freedom.” So you can think about him really understanding Franklin as a scientist, but he also challenges Jefferson more forthrightly on philosophical grounds. Richard Allen says that, “If I’m gonna be this public figure, this kind of founding era influence maker, then I’ve got to make these arguments and step on the public stage and challenge racism and slave holding beliefs wherever I see them.”

Alexis Pedrick: Allen was also hopeful about the equality he saw within the Methodist church. Blacks and whites coexisted side by side, but then white church leaders started re-evaluating Black freedom too.

Richard Newman: Should masters in the church be allowed to retain enslaved people? What about the color line within church pews, should Blacks be able to sit where they want?

Alexis Pedrick: When leaders at St. George’s Methodist Church told Black members to sit in the balcony, Richard Allen responded, and not quite as covertly as he had with Stokely Sturgis.

Richard Newman: He’s a little more confrontational there. He stages the nation’s first sit and walk out. Blacks walk into the segregated church on the main floor, they sit in the pews they’re not supposed to, and when they’re told to get up and leave, Richard Allen in a very real way, challenged the entire congregation to confront their racism. And my belief is that if the congregation had said to church leaders, “Hey. African American congregants are equal. They should be able to sit where they want, they’re equal members in the eyes of God and the congregation.” Then Richard Allen would have felt, “Great. This is my church home.”

Alexis Pedrick: When that didn’t happen, it was clear that African Americans needed to lead their own institutions.

Mariel Carr: Should we look at this sign, the Free African?

Alexis Pedrick: Oh, yes.

Mariel Carr: So it’s like… Let’s read about it.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah. “Established in 1787 under the leadership of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones this organization fostered identity, leadership, and unity among Blacks, and became the forerunner of the first African American churches in this city.”

Mariel Carr: That’s the Free African Society plaque.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

Mariel Carr: Founded in 1787.

Alexis Pedrick: Just six years before the yellow fever outbreak. One more historic event happened in 1793, right before yellow fever hit, the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Crawford Wilson: Which said if you escaped from a plantation or a farm, you could be picked up and put back into that farm, and the person who grabbed you got, like, $500 bounty for yourself.

Alexis Pedrick: Bounties weren’t written into law, but many slaveholders offered them, and this was the worst case scenario for the burgeoning free Black community. It was a constant looming threat of freedom being taken away because free Blacks weren’t citizens, and that had been made clear by another historic event, the Constitution.

Crawford Wilson: In the first articles was a… an article basically that said we were property. When they’re talking about white people, it’s “the citizens.” When they’re talking about Black people, it’s, “those people.” [laughs] we don’t becoming citizens until after the Civil War. That’s a fact. We’re not citizens. This bothered us.

Alexis Pedrick: And now, the scene is set. Yellow fever has taken hold of the city, and Benjamin Rush shows up asking Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to organize Black people as essential workers.

Richard Newman: Rush depicts Black civic participation in yellow fever as evidence not only of kind of scientific progress, but racial progress. He says, “This is something that a righteous God has made available to us all, a disaster that needs Black aid workers to solve.” So that will prove Black worth in the cosmos, but also in a kind of medical and scientific sense. He says, “Plus, you know, I mean, you’re immune so what can it hurt you?”

Alexis Pedrick: Don’t forget that, that solitary belief. You have Black skin, you’re in a Black body, and according the scientific expertise of the day, your body is different. You won’t be hurt, or suffer like your white counterparts.” And Rush dangles something else.

Richard Newman: What he’s really saying is that what we’re really gonna find out is if you want to participate in civic affairs, ’cause if you’re immune, then what would you do? Would you choose to step out in public or not because if you step out in public, you’re gonna prove your worth as citizens.

Alexis Pedrick: In his book, Richard Newman says that Benjamin Rush pushed all the right buttons to get Richard Allen to say yes, but this citizenship button was the biggest.

Crawford Wilson: Anybody who was anybody that was leading anything in the Black community, that was the issue they had that was… Their stomach was churning, that, “I’m not a citizen. I’m free but I’m not a citizen.”

Alexis Pedrick:  Chapter Three: The Myth of Innate Racial Difference.

Alexis Pedrick: Our second big question in the story, after why did Richard Allen say yes to Benjamin Rush, is why did Benjamin Rush ask him in the first place? How could Benjamin Rush, an abolitionist working to end slavery, push a blatantly racist theory? It makes me angry, yeah, but it also just confounds me.

Mariel Carr: Yeah, and you’re not alone. This is Rana Hogarth, historian of medicine, and author of the book, Medicalizing Blackness.

Rana Hogarth: You know, I first encountered him as this abolitionist patriot physician. I’ve realized there was a story here about somebody who thought they were doing good, which is Benjamin Rush, um, you know, calling upon his allies, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. He thinks he’s doing good but he’s actually kind of reifying race, you know, when he writes a letter that says there is, you know, “This fever that passes by people of your color.” I kind of paused in the archive and was like, “Okay. This is… I need to do something with this.”

Mariel Carr: so we should pause here too and point out that Rush’s assumption was rooted in a bit of logic. This is how David Barnes explains it.

David Barnes: So, it’s likely that enslaved people in the United States, and in the colonies before the United States, who had been infected as children… Yellow fever is usually milder in children. That some people of African descent in the United States were, in fact, immune because they had been exposed as children, in West Africa, or perhaps in the West Indies, where yellow fever was more or less endemic.

Alexis Pedrick: But no one knew all of this in 1793, right? They were just assuming that Black bodies were inherently different from white bodies.

Mariel Carr: Right, so this idea was just a given. Benjamin Rush has not come up with this idea in general, right? And we’re gonna go into this a lot this season, but this was literally being taught in medical schools at this time. So when Benjamin Rush was faced with this massive medical problem, he did what any other physician at the time would do. He read medical treatises of other doctors, and he took what they had observed as facts.

Rana Hogarth: He goes back to the writings of John Lining, who, uh, was a physician who, uh, resided in Charleston, South Carolina, which had a very large population of people of African descent, and he makes this claim, right? This, this observation, there is something about the constitutions of the negros, the quote, unquote “Negroes” that makes them not liable to this fever.

Alexis Pedrick: Even now, a doctor might start trying to make sense of an issue by reviewing a medical journal. Science is and always done by people building on each other’s work, and that’s a good thing mostly. In this case, it’s part of the problem.

Mariel Carr: Yeah, it is. Or, you know, maybe problem is too strong of a word. I think it’s just something that we need to understand about the scientific record, but it does mean that sometimes information gets stuck because we just all keep repeating it. And then over time, scientific practices might change, or we learn new things, but that original information is still stuck in the cannon.

Rana Hogarth: When I went to graduate school, there were these claims about, you know, slavery is terrible. The treatment of African Americans and Black people, it’s terrible. And a lot of these ideas about difference, or racial inferiority were just conjured up to support slavery. You know, physicians came up with these outlandish claims, pathologizing race, etc.

Mariel Carr: I have to confess that before I talked to Rana, this was pretty much my understanding too but Rana questioned it when she heard it.

Rana Hogarth: And I thought, okay. Um, so all these ideas were just meant to justify slavery, that they are dismissed as sort of the bad old days of, of, of slavery? And I thought, well that seems odd because, you know, slavery didn’t always need to be defended. There was a time were people didn’t even question slavery. And I thought, well, what did people think about race then? What did physicians think about race at that point?

Mariel Carr: So when Rana dug into the history, she discovered that yes, slavery obviously has to do with it. We’re gonna get into that more in the season too. But it isn’t always this direct line. It was more like a general frame of thought about Blackness that’s been in the water since… Well, for a very long time. And it continued to influence how scientists and doctors thought about race, even if they didn’t realize it.

Rana Hogarth: Benjamin Rush was, um, opposed to slavery, very much so, but he did indeed, you know, traffic in a kind of language that was basically pathologizing Blackness, that singled out Blackness as being something peculiar.

Mariel Carr: His ideas about so called Black peculiarity were based on ideas of white supremacy. After yellow fever, he even argued that Blackness was a form of leprosy. It was a disease that doctors needed to cure so Black people could become white.

Alexis Pedrick: Which, I’m sorry, I have to add this. This is not the first thing you learn about Benjamin Rush, is it? [laughs]

Mariel Carr: Of course not.

Alexis Pedrick: I think as sitting here reconciling what we know about what Rana said also has to do with how we’re taught about slavery and the abolitionist movement. They’re set up as these opposite ends of the spectrum, right? Abolitionism is presented as this absolutely good but the story really makes it clear that it only went so far, you know? Emancipation didn’t equal equality, and you could easily be anti slavery and also anti Black equality.

Mariel Carr: Exactly. And I want to add one more deep thought. It’s not an accident that both the science of the time and the politics of the time said that Black people were inferior.

Alexis Pedrick: Right, exactly. I mean, you know, listeners, are you listening? I dare you to ask us for a science story without culture and politics. It’s not gonna happen. I’ve said it a kajillion times, and I’ll keep saying it. Science does not happen in a vacuum.

Mariel Carr: Just like Rush repeated Lining when talking about yellow fever, people would go on to cite Rush even after it became clear that he was wrong. The original version of the theory stuck.

Rana Hogarth: You know, we might say that’s 1793, that’s an… Is that an isolated incident? And it turns out no. I found references to this in medical dissertations from southern physicians. I quoted in the book, I think, where it’s like, 1830 or something like that, where this guy is saying, “Oh, yeah. Well, Benjamin Rush said X, Y, and Z.” And let me explain, um, you know, looking back, as to why this is important.

Alexis Pedrick: When Benjamin Rush approached Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, it was with a “sound” quote, unquote, scientific truth. Black bodies are different. They don’t get yellow fever. And Allen and Jones rallied their community, and then the fall of 1793 hit.

Alexis Pedrick:  Chapter Four: Yellow Fever Comes to Town.

Alexis Pedrick: The fever hit during the hot, sticky summer of 1793. Benjamin Rush was the guy who thought it came from the rotting coffee beans on the wharf near Arch Street, he thought that the smell, or the miasma, was causing the illness. By September, it was heading towards its peak. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that everyone who could escape the city was doing so. But someone, as Richard Allen wrote, had to stay behind and care for the sick and dying.

Richard Allen Voiceover: Early in September, a solicitation appeared in the public papers to the people of color to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick with a kind of assurance that people of our color were not liable to take the infection. It was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering and fellow mortals.

Alexis Pedrick: The suffering was tremendous. By the end of September, an estimated 40% of the city had fled, including the people in charge. The College of Physicians published a letter in the city’s newspapers written by a committee headed by Rush suggesting 11 measures to prevent the progress of the fever. These included avoiding fatigue, the hot sun, as well as the cool night air, too much liquor, and anything else that might lower their resistance. The most important measure was avoiding contact with the sick at all costs. Even doctors and nurses were falling ill, and help was needed.

Richard Allen Voiceover: We set out to see where we could be useful when a physician was not attainable. We have been the instruments, and the hand of God for saving the lives of some hundreds of our suffering fellow mortals. We have been called to bury some who when we came, we found alive. At other places, we found a parent dead, and none but little, innocent babes to be seen. Their cries, and the innocent confusion of the little ones seemed almost too much for human nature to bear.

Alexis Pedrick: Rush was using every tool in his kit, bleeding, purges, and anything he thought would bring down the fever, and eliminate the excesses he thought were causing the disease. The Bush Hill Hospital, which housed the sick poor, was pitifully understaffed. Nurses and attendants complained of a lack of resources and support.

Richard Allen Voiceover: The dying and dead were indiscriminately mingled together, not the smallest appearance of order or regularity existed. It was, in fact, a great human slaughterhouse where numerous victims were immolated at the alter of intemperance.

Alexis Pedrick: As the cases climbed towards their peak in October, it became clear that Black people were not immune. 5,000 Philadelphians died, and though there’s not accurate records of African American deaths, we know an estimated 10% of the free Black population also perished.

Richard Allen Voiceover: We can assure the public we have taken four and five Black people in a day to be buried. In several instances, when they have been seized with the sickness while nursing, they have been turned out of the house, and wandering and destitute until taking shelter wherever they could. They have languished alone.

Alexis Pedrick: Richard Allen himself got yellow fever, and lay on his death bead at Bush Hill. He pulled through and survived, but just barely. He lost a son. The Free African Society received a whopping $233.10 for its efforts. By the time they bought coffins, hired men to do the heavy lifting, paid for hearse carriages and transport, fed their families, and still gave money to the poor, they were over $170 in the hole. Before yellow fever, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones had taken out a loan from the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, which was run, in part, by Benjamin Rush. They had borrowed $50 to start a nail factory. With all the building in the new city, it seemed like a promising endeavor that could employ free Black men. They never got to build that nail factory. Their resources had been wiped out, and the Abolitionist Society never forgave their debt.

Alexis Pedrick:  Chapter Five: The Pamphlet Wars.

Alexis Pedrick: Yellow fever finally went away when the weather turned cold, and there were no more mosquitoes to transmit the disease.

Crawford Wilson: So now, everybody’s trying to get themselves together, and this young man named Matthew Carey comes along, and Matthew Carey was a business man, and he decided, “Maybe I need to print a story about what happened.” Even though he left, he did not stay in Philadelphia during the yellow fever. But he comes back, and he printed 10,000 copies of his analysis of yellow fever. In his pamphlet was one paragraph that the Black community did not like.

Alexis Pedrick: Members of the Black community had just risked, and in many cases, given up their lives in hopes that white society might finally accept them. And in return, Matthew Carey accused them of price gauging and stealing.

Richard Newman: I think the thing that needs to be said is he doesn’t believe he’s gonna get challenged by African American writers or thinkers, so that’s why he writes it. He thinks he’s reporting on what friends told him during the yellow fever epidemic, um, but he wasn’t there, so he’s really reporting stereotypes, which means he’s really contributing to the negative side of a race debate. He’s trying to basically stir up questions about emancipation, saying, “You know, we should think about this. It’s not just an easy process of right and wrong.” And that bugs Richard Allen, who just thinks, “How can we have these questions, and these stereotypes at this point?”

Alexis Pedrick: And he challenges Matthew Carey by publishing a response. Not only publishing it, he copyrights it, knowing that it’s the first time an African American would do so.

Crawford Wilson: The whole page is the title. Yeah.

Alexis Pedrick: Let’s see. It says, “A narrative of the proceedings of the Black people during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia in the year 1793, and a refutation of some centures thrown upon them in some late publications.” That’s the whole title.

Crawford Wilson: That’s the title. [laughs]

Alexis Pedrick: That’s a heck of a title. The pamphlet is primarily a rebuttal, and Allen lays out in detail what the Black community dealt with during the epidemic. For one, he addressed Matthew Carey’s price gauging accusations.

Richard Allen Voiceover: When the people of color had the sickness and died, we were imposed upon and told it was not with the prevailing sickness, until it became too notorious to be denied. Then we were told some few died but not many. Thus were our services extorted at the peril of our lives, yet you accuse us of extorting a little money from you. It is unpleasant for us to make these remarks, but justice to our color demands it.

Alexis Pedrick: We can’t overstate this document’s importance, not only from a civil rights perspective, but also a scientific one. It’s a firsthand account of the conditions during the epidemic, and Allen uses the pamphlet to push back on so called scientific beliefs about innate racial difference.

Crawford Wilson: Here’s a good one. We believe if you would try the experiment of taking a few Black children, and cultivate their minds with the same care, and let them have the same prospect and view as to living in the world as you would with your own children, you would find upon trial that they were not inferior in mental endowments.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

Mariel Carr: So this is all in this refutation?

Crawford Wilson: Yeah.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

Mariel Carr: It has nothing to do with it.

Crawford Wilson: Nothing to do… [laughter] Nothing to do with it, but it was an opportunity-

Alexis Pedrick: Yes.

Crawford Wilson: To put it out there, and that’s what he did.

Alexis Pedrick: Well, it’s also it’s in that moment, he says-

Crawford Wilson: Yeah.

Alexis Pedrick: If you teach these kids, they’re gonna learn the exact same way.

Crawford Wilson: He’s talking about himself. [laughs]

Alexis Pedrick: Right? He’s talking about himself. He’s like, yeah.

Crawford Wilson: He’s talking-

Alexis Pedrick: But he’s also… He’s refuting, I think-

Crawford Wilson: Yeah.

Alexis Pedrick: This… I’m gonna say scientific, but you know I’m saying it in quotation marks-

Crawford Wilson: Yeah.

Alexis Pedrick: The “scientific” belief of the day-

Crawford Wilson: Yeah.

Alexis Pedrick: That Black people were fundamentally different-

Crawford Wilson: Yes.

Alexis Pedrick: And everything that he is writing in this pamphlet is saying-

Crawford Wilson: And he actually says it.

Alexis Pedrick: Yeah.

Crawford Wilson: He actually says it.

Richard Allen Voiceover: It is even to this day, a generally received opinion in this city that our color was not so liable to the sickness as the whites. Happy would it have been for you, and much more for us, if this observation had been verified by our experience.

Alexis Pedrick: Benjamin Rush finally admitted he was wrong about the immunity myth.

Rana Hogarth: But here’s the thing, even though Benjamin Rush backtracks, he does make the statement that, “Well, they’re not necessarily immune, but they don’t suffer as badly.” He quotes another physician who talks about, um, Black people being insensible to pain, right, that they don’t seem to suffer as much. And so that, for me, was a moment where I said, “Okay. He’s willing to admit being wrong, but he’s also not entirely convinced that the experience of illness is the same amongst races.”

Richard Newman: During a major disaster, this secondary disaster of racism is always lurking. So we saw this with Hurricane Katrina, we saw this during COVID. No matter what you think you’re confronting, in terms of the explicit disaster or problem, it’s gonna expose these inner layers of racism in American culture.

Alexis Pedrick: Back at the Lazaretto, David Barnes told us the quarantine station was built to save the city after it’s fourth yellow fever outbreak.

David Barnes: And essentially what they were saying was, “We promise you that this is gonna be expensive, but it’s going to work, and you’ll be proud of it.” It was a defiant gesture, a refusal to simply die or fade away.

Alexis Pedrick: But in 1793, there was no Lazaretto. It was Black essential workers who were giving fewer than no resources, and the hope was that by doing this, they would be deemed fully worthy of equality, of citizenship.

Richard Newman: And so for the rest of his life, this is gonna be in his mind, an epic moment that he returns to. Is Philadelphia during the yellow fever the reality of America? That no matter how far you come forward, no matter what you do on the civil rights or emancipation front, you’re always gonna see that inner core of racism, or will white as well Black Philadelphians learn to live together?

Alexis Pedrick: After yellow fever, Richard Allen would oscillate between thinking things would finally get better and being so full of despair that the only solution he could think of was to leave the country.

Richard Newman: And at the end of his life, he kind of has another moment of reevaluation, where he’s gonna claim America is his birth land. He says in a famous newspaper editorial in, uh, the 1820s, in Freedom’s Journal, first Black newspaper, “This is our mother country. We’ve watered it with our tears and our blood. Everything that we’ve done helped build this country confers upon us equality of citizenship.”

Crawford Wilson: So Richard Allen is in this tomb.

Alexis Pedrick: We’re in the basement of Mother Bethel, in a small room with a sign above our heads, “Tomb of Bishop Richard Allen. Born February 14, 1760, died March 26, 1831.”

Mariel Carr: Oh, it’s beautiful.

Mariel Carr: Mm-hmm.

Mariel Carr: Would you read a little bit of it for me?

Crawford Wilson: Let her read it.

Alexis Pedrick: “To the memory of Reverend Richard Allen, first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Connection in the United States of America, and founder of this church, who was born in this city AD 1760. He was instrumental in the hands of the Lord in enlightening many thousands of his brethren, the descendants of Africa, and was the founder of the first African church in America, which was erected in Philadelphia AD 1793. I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Reader go thou and do likewise. Wow.

Alexis Pedrick: Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Race is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Democracy demands wisdom. This episode was reported and produced by Mariel Carr, with additional production by Padmini Ragunath. It was edited by Padmini Ragunath and mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer, who also composed the Innate theme music. For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick. Thanks for listening.

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