Deconstructing the Segregated History of Memphis’ Deadliest Disease
Written by Ethan Williford
Whether by family folklore, public education or kitschy ghost tours, you probably have been bombarded with stories of yellow fever in Memphis. And all too often, the same narratives arise.
We conjure images of white heroes and heroines, laboring against hope to save an abandoned city. We hear of benevolent physicians from across the country converging upon the city—assuming the tattered mantle of southern “manhood” in a post-Civil War society. And we feel the resolute pride and subsequent humiliation of the Memphis City Council relinquishing its charter in 1879.
However, scholars and enthusiasts alike have failed to include a vital aspect in the yellow fever historiography: the power and agency exercised by people of color.
Reinforced by yellow fever and memorialized after the disease subsided, traditional Memphis narratives assert the importance of men and women who upheld racial and patriarchal hierarchy while simultaneously excluding immigrants, nonconforming women and, most visibly, African Americans.
Before deconstructing the 1870s Memphis yellow fever epidemics, one must first understand the disease’s role as a historical catalyst in the Americas.
Carried by the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, yellow fever was capable of spreading quickly through river and sea travel, though its source was unknown until 1900. The disease produced symptoms including yellowing jaundice–its namesake– painful hemorrhaging, fever and black vomit.
In 1793, during the fragile infancy of the United States, yellow fever struck Philadelphia. As the then-capital of a fledgling nation, the city boasted well over fifty-thousand residents; however, more than five-thousand died during the outbreak.
Not only was the disease demographically devastating, but it produced tangible political consequences. Leading members of the Democratic-Republican party succumbed to yellow fever, and the disease brought the circulation of the National Gazette, the foremost Democratic-Republican publication, to a grinding halt. Yellow fever in Philadelphia strengthened the Federalist party, which maintained the political high-ground throughout the following decade.
There is also evidence to suggest that yellow fever has been a driving force in the toppling of racial hierarchies long before the disease ever reached Memphis. During the Haitian Revolution, a bout of yellow fever swept over the invading Spanish, British and French armies. The disease, in conjunction with Toussaint Louverture’s leadership and the ferocious will of the Haitian revolutionaries, assured victory and sovereignty for the former slave colony.
However, yellow fever has also historically reinforced racial hierarchies, especially in the southern United States. The city of New Orleans is one such example. When an 1853 epidemic struck the city, members of the Creole upper class used a perceived immunity to the disease to further their own claims of ethnic supremacy.
Meanwhile, in other southern cities, strict quarantines led to yellow fever safety patrols. Reminiscent of the slave catchers produced by the Fugitive Slave Act, these safety patrols hunted down and rounded up yellow fever refugees. These refugees were almost exclusively lower-class and many were people of color.
Reconstruction compelled the South into wholesale changes, though most were fleeting. Black southerners were suddenly afforded new opportunities, and they seized these chances to express autonomy. African Americans began taking on civic roles in local and state governments, and between 1870 and 1884, eight former slaves were elected to the United States Congress.
Reconstruction also saw the desegregation of some southern police forces. After consulting census data, the late southern historian Dennis Rouley wrote in a 1985 essay:
“Of eighteen southern cities, there were eight in 1870 in which black men were represented on the police force in numbers roughly proportionate to the black share of the total urban population. In four other cities, the police were integrated on a token basis...”
Though there were some cases of police integration, in most southern cities, blacks were either insufficiently represented or in Memphis’ case, not represented at all.
In early May 1866, these circumstances exploded in the city. Following a confrontation with black Union soldiers stationed at Fort Pickering, the Irish-dominated police force led a massacre of some 40 African Americans. For three days, the mob burned black neighborhoods and robbed a budding, free black community of its first taste of wealth. The Memphis Massacre spurred a congressional investigation and rallied support for the eventual passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.
By 1878, yellow fever was nothing new to Memphis. An outbreak five years prior had claimed the lives of 2,000 Memphians—the highest death toll of an inland city at the time. A temperate winter in 1877 and warm spring in 1878 created the perfect conditions for mosquito breeding, and in the late summer of 1878, Memphis suffered the consequences. On August 13, wharf restaurant owner Kate Bionda became the first casualty of the most devastating health calamity the city has ever seen.
Memphians with means left the city in droves. Those fleeing encountered quarantines in neighboring towns, but only Jackson, Tennessee, was able to prevent the fever’s spread. Over sixty percent of the city’s 40,000 person population fled in August, and by mid-October, over 17,000 of the remaining residents had contracted the disease. A total of 5,150 people died during the 1878 epidemic. Yellow fever strained an already teetering Memphis economy, and the state legislature voted to revoke the city’s charter.
The dire situation in Memphis soon became a national story. As independent scholar Dr. Jessica Wells points out in her essay, “The Suffering South”:
“Memphian narratives were redolent with heartbreaking stories of suffering and chaos as the city was overwhelmed by the number of sick and dead. Memphians’ gripping narratives captured the attention of popular audiences throughout the United States.”
Moved by horrific stories of suffering, volunteer physicians, nurses, clergy and heralds converged upon Memphis from all over the nation. The Howard Association, established in Virginia to combat epidemics in U.S. cities, organized a medical corps to provide relief. Physicians saw upwards of one hundred and fifty patients per day, and many succumbed to the disease themselves. These doctors have become the martyrs and heroes of yellow fever in the Memphis public memory.
These martyrs included the likes of Mattie Stephenson, an English nurse who voluntarily came to Memphis by way of Illinois during the 1873 epidemic. She died of the disease at the tender age of eighteen. Heroes like Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler, two priests at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church who died while tending to disease victims, are among a multitude of religious figures that have since been memorialized. However, no other Memphian received more publicity during yellow fever than J. M. Keating, publisher of The Memphis Appeal and voice of the epidemic experience to those outside of the city.
Largely forgotten in epidemic narratives are people of color and the agency demonstrated by those communities.
“Recent attempts by academic and public historians to include the stories of African Americans have been plagued by a lack of primary source material,” explained Dr. Wells in her aforementioned essay.
White-authored yellow fever sources consistently portrayed black Memphians in one of two roles: caretakers or criminals.
“For this reason,” Wells writes, “the contemporary collective memory of yellow fever in Memphis continues to disseminate the notion—advanced by the creators and arbiters of the dominant narrative—that the only Memphians whose experience really matters are white.”
Beyond run-of-the-mill racism, disregard of black experiences was likely further promulgated by the misconception of African American immunity to yellow fever. The black population did show signs of resistance to the disease—only seven percent of infected black citizens succumbed—yet Mariola Espinosa, an expert of public health and medicine, has argued that the immunity assertion is nothing more than a remaining racialized myth of an ignorant era.
“There was never a consensus among medical observers that black immunity to yellow fever actually existed,” she claims. “The evidence from epidemics indicates that in fact it did not, and the analogy to the very real and well-documented evolutionary consequences of endemic malaria is not apt.”
There exists only one tangible public memorial to a black individual associated with yellow fever. Elmwood Cemetery erected a headstone in honor of Dr. R. H. Tate, a volunteer with the Howard Association and victim of the disease. The memorial is understandably lacking, as little is known about the life and struggle of Tate as a black medical professional in the South. Even still, his identity reinforces the romanticized archetype of traditional yellow fever heroes—educated, professional and self-sacrificing.
“[Dr. Tate’s] story offers black Memphians a chance to claim a hero that meets the conventional standards set by the dominant narrative,” writes Dr. Wells. “But his memorial attracts little attention, making R. H. Tate a minor character in the collective memory of the epidemic.”
We can, however, glean three different instances in which people of color showed tremendous amounts of agency during and after the Memphis yellow fever epidemics: the temporary integration of the Memphis police force; the African American demand for improved sanitation in their communities; and the meteoric rise of the south’s first black “millionaire,” Robert R. Church.
Despite the sordid history of racism within the Memphis police department, yellow fever pulled Memphis against the tide or resegregation in the post-Reconstruction South. In 1870, census data showed that no black officer had ever been employed by the Memphis police force. However, by 1878, few able-bodied white men remained in the city, depleting police ranks.
The weakened position of white leaders provided the impetus to finally lift the color barrier, something even Reconstruction Republicans failed to accomplish. Black citizens seized on the opportunity, and by 1880, twenty-three percent of the Memphis police force was black. Even after the epidemic had subsided, black police officers were able to retain their positions until Jim Crowe-style segregation was reimposed in 1895.
Black citizens also took the reigns in the lobbying for better sanitation in their communities. Prior to the epidemics of the 1870s, Memphis public sanitation was universally below par. Historian John H. Ellis explains the situation in his essay, “Memphis’ Sanitary Revolution.”
“The wretched state of public health in Memphis before 1880 was due perhaps not so much to epidemic disease—although there was plenty of that—as to the utter absence of the most elemental means of prevention known and available at that time,” Ellis writes. “Water supply and sewage disposal facilities were wholly inadequate. General sanitation, it seems, was a luxury the busy community could not afford. The corresponding result was chronic sickness and high death rates.”
The sanitation in low-income African American and immigrant communities was particularly wretched. The Pinch District is a prime example. Once a jewel of white Memphis commerce, the community became an enclave for minorities. Jewish, Irish, Italian, Russian, Greek and African Americans all shared space in the crowded district. Because of its close proximity to the Mississippi River and complete lack of basic sanitary infrastructure, the yellow fever death toll in the Pinch exceeded other areas around the city. Civic officials largely ignored calls for even minimal water and sewer systems in the neighborhood.
However, by August of 1878, the communities of color around the city refused to be ignored. Influential black community leaders Ed Shaw and William Porter organized a splinter group from the Citizen’s Relief Committee to exclusively serve the African American areas of the city. Known as the Colored Central Committee, the organization successfully lobbied for city-wide improvements to sanitation. Thanks to their efforts, the city instituted a garbage collection in 1879, and access to the clean waters of underground artesian wells was made available by 1887.
Finally, the economic success of Robert R. Church in the wake of the epidemic serves as an amazing example of individual black agency. Church was born a slave in 1839 to a white steamboat captain and a black native seamstress. His mother died when he was twelve, at which point Church began serving his father—and master—on a Mississippi riverboat. Though Church always asserted a loving father-son relationship, his father chose never to emancipate his son—perhaps due to an 1854 Tennessee law demanding that any master freeing a slave must pay for that slave’s transportation to Liberia. The Antebellum South had a unique way of incentivizing moral depravity.
As a young man, Church purchased a saloon on the docks of Memphis. During the 1866 Memphis Massacre, he was shot in the head and left for dead by white rioters. The mob stole three hundred dollars and ransacked his business. However, the violent attack only strengthened Church’s resolve to beat the white Memphis aristocracy at their own rigged game. As Jeanette Keith writes in her account Fever Season, “The picture that emerges is of a proud young man who expected to be treated as the equal of any other man.”
Little is known about Church’s role during the yellow fever outbreaks of the late nineteenth century. White southerners of that era did not archive materials about even the most respected African Americans. Though his presence during the epidemics went largely unnoticed, no Memphian gained more from the drastic demographic changes brought on by the disease.
As white Memphians either fled or succumbed to yellow fever, Church capitalized on the opportunity to purchase cheap property across the city. This became the foundation of his fortune, becoming the first black southern “millionaire” by the turn of the century. Church even became the first Memphis citizen to buy a $1,000 bond to pay off civic debt and help restore the city’s charter.
“While white Memphians set about systematically taking away the rights blacks had attained during Reconstruction,” Keith writes, “Robert R. Church rose to wealth and power, in the process creating an oasis in which black cultural and economic dreams could flower.”
When studying history, we must accept inevitable holes. The breadth of human interaction with disease can never be fully understood nor explained. However, whether approaching history through an academic, hobbyist or novice lens, we must reject the exclusion of minorities in public memory. This holds especially true when public health provides the very catalyst that overturns traditional social dynamics.
Dennis C. Rouley expressed it best.
“Human health,” he explains, “has a profound effect on human behavior and at times has imparted a decisive impetus to the course of history.”
The tragedy of yellow fever provided black citizens of Memphis the impetus to change their circumstances. We must forever remember them.