11. Benjamin Rush’s home and African Methodists’ role in the Yellow Fever Epidemic
Just to the west of the corner of 3rd Street and Walnut stood the home of Dr. Benjamin Rush – one of the most well-connected people in late 1700s Philadelphia. He was a famous physician and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1787 he also threw himself into working for the anti-slavery cause even if he himself was still a slave-owner at the time. One night Benjamin Rush had a dream where he was magically transported to the shores of Africa. In the dream an old African man showed Rush the African paradise from which countless Africans had been stolen to serve the evil slave trade. Rush awakened with renewed passion to fight slavery. This dream combined with his own reading of abolitionist authors propelled Rush into action. He helped Absalom Jones draw up plans for the African Church of Philadelphia which became St. Thomas.
Benjamin Rush was also the physician who declared that the yellow fever epidemic had struck Philadelphia. He pleaded with Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to organize the African American community to care for the sick and dying. Rush believed blacks were immune from the sickness and that the African American community’s assistance with this epidemic would help them win allies in their quest for greater freedom. Unfortunately, Benjamin Rush was wrong on both counts. Jones and Allen did organize the African American community for this cause though. Many died as they sought to care for people of all backgrounds – black and white – who, in some cases, were left alone to die.
Francis Asbury wrote about the horrors of the yellow fever epidemic in his journal when he visited the city to preach at the height of the epidemic in September of 1793. That Asbury visited this city when thousands were fleeing it by itself tells us a lot about Asbury’s compassion. He wrote in his journal:
“We rode to the city. Ah! How the ways mourn! How low-spirited are the people whilst making their escape. I found it awful indeed. I judge the people die from fifty to one hundred in a day: some of our friends are dying, others flying… The streets are now depopulated, and the city wears a gloomy aspect. All night long my ears and heart were wounded with the cry of fire! O! how awful!”
Sadly, African Americans did not receive warm expressions of Philadelphians’ gratitude for their self-less actions during the Epidemic of 1793 as Rush had predicted. Instead, one pamphlet writer slandered the African American community for treating whites badly and even laughing at whites’ illnesses during the epidemic. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones fired back a rigorous defense of African American actions during the epidemic. Their pamphlet made the two friends the first copyrighted black authors in America.