No Space to Move

Physical space has been central to Black people’s experiences in the Americas and beyond. Colonialism and enslavement forced Africans into environments where stress took its toll and diseases thrived, with freedom, status and location influencing how illness would manifest itself in their lives. The images in this section display how the movement and residences of Black people existed in close proximity to human waste, pollution, and ultimately, disease. From the cramped conditions of slave quarters to the polluted atmosphere of a large city, free and enslaved Black people alike have contended with disease in every place and ultimately, no space to move.

William Nicholson Jennings, Girard Slave Pens (Louisiana, 1894). Photograph.

This photograph depicts the slave pens on Stephen Girard’s Louisiana plantation. In 1793, Girard funded and led a hospital for Philadelphia’s poorest yellow fever patients. The thick walls and barred windows of this pen radiate a feeling of claustrophobia that contrasts sharply with that of the hospital.

James P. Malcolm, Bush Hill Mansion in 1737 (Philadelphia, 1787). Watercolor. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Bush Hill Mansion, once occupied by John Adams during his term as vice-president, was converted into a yellow fever hospital in 1793. Stephen Girard was named superintendent of the hospital, a spacious structure on a sprawling plot of land. Several decades later, Girard would go on to purchase a plantation in Louisiana where enslaved Black people lived in cramped quarters.

Philadelphia Plan of the City and Its Environs, 1797, (Philadelphia, 1797). Map. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Bordered by two rivers, Philadelphia spent much of the colonial period as a bustling port city. Ships often dumped things like human waste, dead fish, or unusable goods directly into the Delaware River. People living closest to the ports on the Delaware River were in close proximity to this waste and the smells it created.

“Our New York Letter.” Philadelphia Inquirer (February 2, 1877).

In the nineteenth century, doctors saw the lack of sanitation in large American cities as a public health crisis. Bad air or ‘miasma’ was believed to cause disease, so sewage and air pollution were to be avoided. Black residents often lived in close proximity to these sanitation failures.

The Slave Chain (London, 1851). Engraving.

A group of enslaved Africans are shown forced into a coffle in Benin. Being chained together at the neck did not allow for comfortable movement and required that each person in the chain moved together — if one person fell from illness or exhaustion, others fell with them.

Edward Francis Finden, Gate and Slave Market at Pernambuco (London, 1824). Engraving.

Enslaved Africans endured immense physical and emotional stress on their forced journey to the Americas. They were often denied food, refused the opportunity to move, and forced to lay in human waste for long periods of time. This created health issues that persisted upon arrival. In this picture, ribs can be seen poking through their sides, while one person appears to be dead.