[This article also appears on the blog of the Germantown Mennonite Church.]
It was fall of 1793 in Philadelphia. Yellow fever was spreading over the city. In a period of 100 days, 10% of the city’s residents had died. The city was in a panic. Most governing officials left the city, including President George Washington. In the midst of this epidemic, Philadelphia’s Mayor Clarkson put out a call for civic-minded volunteers to stay in the city and help out by caring for the sick.
Richard Allen was born into slavery in 1760 on a Delaware plantation owned by Benjamin Chew. He managed to raise enough money to purchase his freedom, and he made his way to Philadelphia. Recognizing his gift of preaching, St. George’s Methodist Episcopal church persuaded him to lead a church service for the city’s free and enslaved persons of African descent. Allen developed a strong following, and along with Absalom Jones, established the Free African Society. The society was dedicated to the economic and social uplift of the city’s African Americans.
Dr. Benjamin Rush was the city’s leading physician and also a strong supporter of the Free African Society and friend of Richard Allen. Rush asked Allen for help in recruiting volunteers to care for yellow fever victims. Rush erroneously believed that black Philadelphians were immune to yellow fever and this could be the moment when they could demonstrate their worthiness as civic leaders. Allen recruited scores of African American nurses to go door to door, emptying bed pans, feeding and comforting the sick, and disposing of the dead. They truly acted heroically in face of danger and many lost their lives as a result.
In the months after the fever subsided, not all white residents recognized their sacrifices. Mathew Carey wrote an official account of the epidemic accusing black nurses of stealing and price gouging. Carey provided little evidence for these accusations, but most white Philadelphians were willing to believe rumors that fit their own prejudices about their African American neighbors. Carey’s book was wildly popular and sold over ten thousands copies.
Allen felt betrayed by Philadelphia’s white citizens. His response was to pick up a pen and paper and sit down to write an accurate account to set the record straight. He acknowledged that there were isolated incidents of theft, but it was prejudiced to single out African Americans for censure, when far more whites had been accused of the same crimes. Jones and Allen worked together to write a very short book with a very long title: “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 Thrown Upon Them in Some Late Publications.” It was the first copyrighted book written by an African American and it included a letter by Mayor Clarkson who praised the city’s black leaders for their “diligence, attention, and decency of deportment” during the epidemic.
In era when fake new, fake history, and even fake massacres proliferate, in a time when inaccurate rumors are spread about vulnerable minorities, we would do well to look to Richard Allen as an example. It’s time for us to pick up our pens and paper and speak the truth.
To learn more about Richard Allen, be sure to visit the museum at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. There is also an excellent biography by Richard S. Newman titled Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers.