Fact check: Black nurses helped save Philadelphia during a 1793 epidemic

The claim: It was Black nurses who saved a city during an epidemic.

A June 24 Instagram post by @thenurseoasis, a page that empowers and connects Black nurses, portrays an aerial view of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It claims that Black nurses saved the city during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. Part of its caption reads, “As often occurs in American history, Black people were called upon to save the day.”

Black community’s contributions during the outbreak

In the late summer of 1793, 100 people died each day, according to History.com, out of a population of about 50,000. It was the largest city in the U.S. at the time. A third of Philadelphia's population fled the city. The death toll eventually hit 5,000. The city government collapsed because caring for the sick strained public services.

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It was believed that Black people were immune to yellow fever due to a seemingly low morbidity rate (It was unknown at the time that the virus, which causes symptoms like fever, muscle pain, jaundice and internal bleeding, is transmitted by mosquitoes).

So the mayor of Philadelphia called in the Free African Society, a mutual aid organization, to organize Black nurses who could care for the sick, according to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social Welfare History Project. They served through the duration of the epidemic.

The Black community assisted with removing corpses, digging graves and burying the dead. The Free African Society provided financial aid to the sick, a contribution that eventually led to its disbandment when it could not repay debts, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica.

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A pamphlet fight over character

A prominent white printer named Matthew Carey published an inflammatory pamphlet criticizing the city's response to the outbreak, according to Working Nurse, a monthly magazine and website that offers career advice to nurses.

Carey wrote, "The great demand for nurses … was eagerly seized by some of the vilest of the blacks."

The pamphlet claimed that Black people who helped during the crisis were “money hungry opportunists,” according to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Free African Society founders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones rebutted this claim in their own pamphlet, writing that nurses worked “…For a week or 10 days, left to do the best they could without any sufficient rest, many of them having some of their dearest connections sick at the time...”

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Allen contracted yellow fever himself and nearly died, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

The Social Welfare History Project states, “…The Free African Society provided the valuable social services of looking after the sick, the poor, the dead, the widowed, and the orphaned of their marginalized membership.”

Eventually, the cold weather killed off the mosquitoes and the death toll fell to 20 per day, according to History.com.

Jones and Allen wrote about the epidemic in their memoir 20 years later, “The black people were looked to … Our services were the production of real sensibility — we sought not fee nor reward … Thus were our services extorted at the peril of our lives.”

Our ruling: True

The claim that Black nurses helped save Philadelphia during an epidemic in 1793 is TRUE, based on our research. The city relied on the contributions of the Free African Society and the Black community to serve the public by caring for the sick, burying the dead and providing financial aid to the sick.

Our fact check sources:

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