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Steve Williams column: Mama is asleep, don’t wake her!

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Steve Williams

A woman died. Two men came to pick up her body. Upon entering the house with the coffin, an innocent child greeted them with, “Mama’s asleep, don’t wake her!” But when the little girl saw them putting her mother in the coffin, she was inconsolable with grief. The distress of the child was so great that it almost overcame them. When she demanded why they were putting her mama in the box, they did not know how to answer her. Finally, they committed the little girl in the care of a neighbor, loaded the coffin, and left with heavy hearts.

Such was the case in Philadelphia in 1793. Why am I bringing this up now? Because now, history is repeating itself. The events of the summer of 1793 are eerily similar to what’s happening today.

Before unpacking this story, let me remind you of an old proverb, “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Since the onset of the Coronavirus, I’ve heard the words, “we’re living in a new normal,” dozens of times, perhaps you have too. But it’s not new. Most (if not all) of the so-called new behaviors we see today with COVID 19, we’ve seen before.

Do these behaviors sound familiar to you: people self-isolating, avoiding neighbors and friends, sheltering at home, refusing to touch each other, covering their faces, hoarding supplies, restricting travel, quarantining ships and people, closing businesses, schools, and churches, overworking medical practitioners, overburdening hospitals, arguing over treatments, blaming other races, competing for goods, disproportionately affecting the poor, and lastly, minimal support from their federal government?

Yet, even in the midst of a horrific calamity two hundred years ago, a few people rose to meet the challenge. This story is about them, so I’ll color them – heroes.

In 1793, our nation’s capitol was not in Washington DC, rather, Philadelphia. It was the largest, wealthiest, and most centrally located city in the nation. With 50,000 residents, it was also the home of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and a celebrated physician and Declaration of Independence signatory named Benjamin Rush.

The summer of 1793 was the hottest summers in years. Like many coastal cities, the months of August and September were considered the “sickly season,” when fevers were prevalent. Doctor Rush was called to the home of Dr. Hugh Hodge on August 5. Hodge’s young daughter was suffering from a high fever and vomiting blood. That day she died. And over the next two weeks, many more of his patients died from the same symptoms – severe fever, incontinence, nausea, vomiting, black stool, and yellowing of their eyes and skin. Having seen these patterns before, he recognized it was Yellow Fever, a highly contagious disease. Quickly he alerted the mayor that the city was in the midst of an epidemic.

As the fever tore through the city like wildfire, more and more people died. Fear penetrated the bravest of hearts. Nearly everyone who could afford it left, leaving the poor to bear the brunt of the disaster.

Led by Dr. Rush, an intense struggle was underway to contain and cure the disease. Though he was urged to flee the city like so many others had, he refused, “I have resolved to stick to my principles, my practice, and my patients to the last extremity,” said Rush.

No one knew what was causing the disease. Rush believed it was caused by unsanitary conditions and toxic air “produced by some damaged coffee that had putrefied on one of the wharves.” Others believed it was brought to Philadelphia by Haitian immigrants who’d recently arrived.

What happened next can only be described as deja-vu. Streets became empty; business halted, supplies dwindled, hospitals were overrun with patients, health workers died, patients were quarantined, and nurses could not be had at any price. Bodies lay in the streets, families deserted loved ones (including children) infected with the fever, orphanages were overcrowded, church doors were closed, ports refused ships, and travel was restricted. Anti-immigrant and racial tensions tightened, hand-shaking and embracing stopped, people stayed shut up in their homes afraid to walk the streets, and when they did, their faces were thoroughly covered.

Doctors disagreed over treatment for the disease. Some like Rush advocated for purging and aggressive bloodletting, while others propose milder remedies such as teas and cold baths. Regardless, nothing was working to stem the crises.

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As summer dragged into fall, so did the fever. Over five thousand died. It seemed that only God could bring it to an end, but many believed it was God’s judgment. As the weather cooled, the disease subsided, and the deaths stopped. It wasn’t medical intervention that brought a halt to the epidemic, but the October frost. Even so, it did not stop the political and racial finger-pointing. Prejudices die hard, and there’s nothing like a public health crisis to bring them out.

Even before the epidemic, Dr. Benjamin Rush, an abolitionist and strong supporter of the Free African Society, had forged friendships with Reverends Richard Allen, the charismatic leader of his African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Absalom Jones, the influential leader of his African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Under the assumption that blacks were immune from getting Yellow Fever, he asked his good friends to help in recruiting volunteers to care for victims of the dreaded disease gripping the city.

He suggested if blacks played a vital role in helping the victims, in turn, it would help them win allies in their quest for greater freedom. Furthermore, he predicted when the crises was over, white citizens would return the kindness and concern for them and their cause. With hopes of expelling racism and promoting their cause of abolition, Allen and Jones willingly agreed and began organizing the African-American community to care for the sick and dying.

They recruited scores of nurses to go door to door, emptying bedpans, feeding and comforting the sick, and disposing of the dead. Other black caretakers made coffins, dug graves, and drove carts carrying the dead.

Unfortunately, Rush’s beliefs proved wrong on two accounts. First, he was wrong about blacks’ susceptibility to Yellow Fever. He had leaned heavily on the research of noted physician John Lining who’d recorded his findings on the outbreak of Yellow Fever in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1748. Lining surmised that blacks did not succumb to the disease as others did. But he never differentiated between American born blacks from those blacks born in Africa. In the 1740s, South Carolina’s black population was overwhelmingly African born. Those who survived the outbreak were probably born in Africa, where the disease was more prevalent. By the time they reached America, they’d probably developed antibodies. However, in 1793, blacks were succumbing to Yellow Fever in similar percentages as whites.

Rush was also mistaken on his prediction that whites would be thankful for the selfless actions of blacks during the epidemic. While many whites were grateful to Allen and Jones, many more whites considered their black caretakers during the crises as merely “the help” and not “the saviors.” On top of this, a widely read and popular publisher wrote a scathing book accusing black caretakers of extorting whites, stealing, and plundering their homes. He accused black nurses of grossly overcharging for their services.

This did not sit well with Richard Allen. In a book that he and Jones wrote, he quickly set the record straight. “Many nurses,” said Allen, “were up night and day, worn down with fatigue and want of sleep, without anyone to relieve them. Some of their patients were delirious, raging, and frightful to behold; others lay vomiting blood and screaming enough to chill them with horror. In these ghastly conditions, these nurses worked for a week or ten days, doing the best they could without sufficient rest.”

Allen also noted that (when whites fled the city) blacks spend the crises sacrificially caring for victims, both black and white. They attended to the sick, buried the dead, handled infected clothes and linens — all the while receiving little to no pay for their labor and placing their own health at risk. Many continued to endure the horrors of racism while performing their duties. As for price gouging, Allen, Jones, and the mayor each agreed that the high prices did not result from blacks charging unreasonable fees; instead, families outbidding each other for the available caregivers.

Allen and Jones, both of whom had some medical training, took no wages for their labor. “These two black men,” said Rush, “spent all the intervals of time, in which they were not employed in burying the dead, visiting the sick, and purging them, agreeably to my directions. Their success was unparalleled by what is called a regular practice.”

It was Bishops Allen and Jones who picked up the mother of the grieving child consumed with sorrow and properly buried her. Whether or not they received any love from the people in the “City of Brotherly Love” in 1793, I may never know. But I do know that one lesson we should all learn from this current pandemic is — “This too shall pass.”

In the meantime, I can almost hear the voice of Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and Benjamin Rush Heavenly Host telling them on their Judgment Day – “Well done, my good and faithful servant, well done!”

Steve Williams is an award winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.

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