The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 was a major point of Memphis history. Its sweeping effect on Memphis citizens halted the development of the city. While the city experienced six outbreaks of Yellow Fever in total, the 1878 outbreak was, by far, the most aggressive and had the most effect on the city.

This excerpt from a documentary about medicine in Memphis gives a good summary of the gravity of the situation during the time of the epidemic:

The “mass exodus” out of the city was comprised mostly of people who could afford to flee the city. Quite literally all of the money in Memphis flowed out of the city in a matter of three days. Fortunately for the poorer African American population, they died at much lower rates from the disease than did white people. This was due to their ancestors’ exposure to the disease in West Africa thus the development of resilience. Only 7% of African Americans who contracted yellow fever in 1878 actually died from it.

Since African Americans were least affected by the actual disease, they got the opportunity to serve on the police force for the first time. They also worked as nurses, cart drivers, grave diggers, and coffin makers. They kept these jobs even though African Americans had been barred from this kind of employment in southern cities. Unfortunately, they were eventually forced out of these positions despite their integral part in keeping the city afloat during such an unstable time.

This video, taken by a Memphis citizen at the memorial site for those who stayed behind to help during the different epidemics, gives a brief explanation of the political corruption that also held Memphis back from reaching its full potential during this time:

Yellow fever was, arguably, one of the most important factors that let African Americans build Memphis culture. Throughout Memphis history, since the city was chartered, African Americans have been present in the city. During the various epidemics, as whites poured out of the city, African Americans remained.

Robert Archer Sr., an African American man living in Memphis at the time of the epidemics, was the man to reestablish the charter the city had lost due to its dramatic decrease in population and general stability. He paid the first bond of $1,000 to save the city of Memphis.

During Memphis’s recovery from the yellow fever epidemic, Beale Street, a now thriving cultural center of the downtown area, came into existence to serve the black community. Robert Church Sr. was responsible for buying up real estate in the Beale Street area with the intention of making it a space for the African Americans of Memphis to come together and celebrate culture.

It was on Beale Street that Memphis’s culture was born. In the recovery from the wipeout of Memphis’s population, black people rebuilt Memphis through music, food, and art.


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