The Gradual Abolition Act, a legislative action moving away from slavery, was passed in the state of Philadelphia in year 1790. Anti-slavery movements were well in motion and progress, and so stood strong the opposition. In year 1793, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital – and most cosmopolitan city in the United States. Internationally renowned physician, Benjamin Rush, asserted in the beginning and middle stages of the epidemic that the African American blacks were immune to the Yellow Fever. The social implications of such an assertion from a renowned scientist and figure in society was huge. Benjamin Rush had previously signed the Declaration of Independence and his studies were supported by his connections in the political and academic world.
This social phenomenon is discussed in detail in page 6 of Katherine Polak’s Perspectives on Epidemic: The Yellow Fever in 1793 Philadelphia:
Mayor Clarkson placed an advertisement in the one city paper that was still in print asking for “the people of colour to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick.” Africans “were supposed not liable to the infection based on information contained in several published histories of the disease, including one by Dr. Lining of Charleston.
Rush asked members of the Free African Society to take care of the ill and dying whites, which two prominent figures of the black community, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, agreed to do. In November 1793, after the thick of the epidemic, Carey attacks the assistance of these black volunteers in A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia, as discussed in Mona Kolsky’s Philadelphia 1793: Yellow Fever, Race, Medicine and Politics:
He accused them of extortion, theft of property in homes in which they serviced, and overall publicly vilified them. He condemned them for taking money for their services at such a disastrous time. He spoke nothing of white citizens who did the same.
In pg. 41 of Arthur Mervyn, Mervyn states:
I was roused from […] doubts by a summons to breakfast, obsequiously delivered by a black servant.
Evidence from the text suggests racial discrimination against blacks; the black servant is seen to “obsequiously” deliver breakfast to Arthur Mervyn, suggesting a tint of contempt towards the black servant.
Furthermore, there exists further evidence of discrimination against blacks as discussed in The Middle Passages of Arthur Mervyn by Liam Corley:
Black Philadelphians served as nurses in the Bush Hill hospital and as attendants to Rush’s patients throughout the months of the epidemic despite the evidence that blacks were as likely to die from yellow fever as whites.
It is important to note these said injustices and examine the novel in context of the racial discrimination that plagued society; with assertions that the blacks did not contract the plague in the same manner as whites did, and blacks agreeing to take care of the diseased whites as a service, it poses a question: what is the relationship between a society’s sins and engraved notions in society and the effects of the plague to society? Does it cause tension amidst the social hierarchy; does it encourage further discrimination? Some questions to keep in mind as we move on to observe how the plague affects society…