Reading “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 Censures” was an incredible eye-opening experience into, not only the horrors of the Yellow Fever epidemic, but of the treatment of free Blacks in Philadelphia who helped the people of the city. The treatment of free Blacks after the Yellow Fever epidemic reminds me of the treatment of Blacks and narratives that arose from the civil rights movement, just after World War II. The “Refutation” is a faithful narrative in response to Mathew Carey’s “A Short Account of the Malignant Fever which Prevailed in Philadelphia, 1793”. “Refutation” sets the tone for narratives and documents by later African Americans who would find themselves suffering from the same defamation of character and lack of appreciation for their contributions to society. Yes…and now let’s see how.
In the summer of 1793 an epidemic of Yellow Fever took hold of Philadelphia. The Mayor of Philadelphia, Matthew Clarkson, called on free Blacks to assist those who were “distressed, perishing and neglected” because he believed Blacks to be immune to Yellow Fever. Absolom Jones and Richard Allen, two free Black men and leaders in the Black community volunteered and, under the instruction prominent doctor, Benjamin Rush, used Dr. Rush’s method of bleeding patients. Allen and Jones, along with many in the Black community were instrumental in the fighting of the disease and taking care of Philadelphians by nursing and taking care of the sick—by burying those who lost their lives to the disease.
What the Black community received in return was vilification, accused of taking advantage of the sick and dying, of theft, specifically accused by Mathew Carey in his “A Short Account of the Malignant Fever which Prevailed in Philadelphia, 1793”. Carey went so far as to say “The great demand for nurses, afforded an opportunity for imposition, which was eagerly seized by some of those who acted in that capacity, both coloured and white. They extorted two, three, four, and even five dollars a night for such attendance, as would have been well paid for, by a single dollar. Some of them were even detected in plundering the houses of the sick” and went on to describe several accounts of villainous behavior exhibited by ‘Negroes’. There was no praise for the brave actions of the Black community, the tremendous help they offered to the city of Philadelphia and her people—only mentioned the villainy of a few Blacks, but made it seem as if they were all wicked. For this reason, the “Refutation” needed to be published, to give voice to the hard working and give a more accurate account of Black people’s dealings with the people of Philadelphia during this tumultuous time. All Jones and Allen and the rest of the Black community wanted, was to be appreciated for the work they had done and to be treated fairly, not stereotyped for the acts of a few, even though, blacks were not the only ones committing those acts.
Sadly, this would not be the only time that the hard work and sacrifice of the Black community would be shunned in order to paint a more dark and grim and infamous depiction of Blacks. Thousands of African Americans signed up to enlist during World War II. They faced immense prejudice and segregation in the military regardless of their heroic efforts, fighting two wars: one war abroad, against the greatest racist the world had ever known, as well as at home, fighting for equal rights, equal treatment, and equal education from one of the greatest injustices to a people ever known in a nation that claimed to be the freest of the free. African Americans returned home to the country that they had fought for, bled for, continued to treat them with disdain, unequal in all facets.
Reading the heartbreaking account of Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and the African American community of Philadelphia, what they did for the city and how they were treated afterwards, “Refutations” allowed me to understand further the similarities between 1793 and the start of the Civil Rights Movement. Regardless of whether or not Philadelphia was a beacon of hope and freedom for Blacks, White people still viewed themselves as superior to Blacks. However, Blacks rose to the occasion and Whites had to rely heavily on the help and support of Blacks and showed that they were self-reliant and more than capable of taking care of themselves in addition to the rest of the city during the Yellow Fever outbreak. Similarly, during World War II, Blacks proved to be more than capable and resilient, having taken jobs not normally offered to them such as manufacturing and industry jobs in addition to proving themselves just as capable fighting in the war as Whites. Once again, the argument of Black inferiority was disproven.
In addition to being a defense against false accusations attributed to their race, “The Narrative” was also a plea to accept Blacks as they were, human beings deserving of humane treatment and respect for their work, just as their white counterparts. Later documents demanding civil rights followed in the footsteps of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, including W. E. B. Dubois’ sociological study, “The Philadelphia Negro” commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania. With Black Philadelphians being turned away for jobs in favor of more “trustworthy” and “lighter skinned” poor Irish and German immigrants, crime in Black Philadelphia’s lower class rose. Even though the increase in crime did not, however, reflect the Black crime rate relative to White crime rates in Philadelphia, they did reflect and influence White perceptions of the Black community. The negative perceptions persisted throughout history, through the Civil Rights Movement and, even with the progress America has made, to this very day.
Seeing that Blacks were just as capable as whites should have been a gateway to recognizing the equality of fellow human beings. Instead, it gave rise to the continued and increased inhumane treatment and systematic repression of Black people. “Refutations” then, can be seen as a stepping stone or a prelude to many of the Civil Rights Movement because Black people were asking for the same thing: acknowledgements of their contributions, respect for their humanity, and equal treatment.
“We have many unprovoked enemies, who begrudge us the liberty we enjoy, and are glad to hear of any compliant against our colour, be it just or unjust.” Just as Doris “Dorie” Miller, who was awarded the Navy Cross for bravery for firing upon Japanese aircraft during Pearl Harbor, received no outside recognition as his White counterparts did, neither did the Black men and women who aided in the treatment and care of victims of Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793.