Printing Black Health

Illustrations and other print materials enable us to chart the history of health among members of the African diaspora, mainly African Americans, from the African slave market to nineteenth-century United States. These archives vividly portray the highly unhealthy conditions that Black people were forced into during slavery, which served as the origin point for a long history of unequal access to healthcare and often more fatal epidemic death rates between Black and White Americans. Moreover, these materials shed light on problematic racist attitudes that perpetuated health inequities among African Americans.

Andrew & Filmer, Slave Market Scene on the Kambia River, Coast of Africa (New York, c1860). Fold-out Frontispiece from Richard Drake, Revelations of a Slave Smuggler. Wood Engraving.

This engraving from Richard Drake's Revelations of a Slave Smuggler, published around 1860, portrays a chaotic scene at a slave market on the Kambia River in Africa. Near the center, a slave-trader examines an African man’s teeth before possibly purchasing him. The appearance of health, which was often assessed by looking at the enslaved person’s teeth, was more important to slave-traders than the enslaved’s actual health. Once the enslaved entered the ships, like the one seen in this image, they generally found abhorrently unsanitary conditions that exposed them to epidemics and other illnesses.

“The Slave Deck of the Bark ‘Wildfire,’ Brought into Key West on April 30, 1860,” Harper’s Weekly, (June 2, 1860). Courtesy of Fels Afro-Americana Image Project.

This illustration from an 1860 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicts numerous emaciated enslaved Africans aboard a vessel named the Wildfire. The ship was captured by American authorities near Cuba, as the Transatlantic slave trade had become illegal by the mid-nineteenth century. The text that accompanies the illustration reports the deaths of over 100 enslaved Africans, and the hospitalization of 40 more upon arrival in Florida, due to “inanition, exhaustion, and diseases” on board the ship. Shockingly, the writer describes the Wildfire’s conditions, which facilitated the spread of dysentery and other diseases, as relatively healthy by slave-ship standards.

Andrew & Filmer, Scene in the Hold of the ‘Blood-Stained Gloria’ (New York City, c1860). Fold-out Plate from Richard Drake, Revelations of a Slave Smuggler. Courtesy of Fels Afro-Americana Image Project.

This engraving also appears in Richard Drake’s Revelations of a Slave Smuggler. Set aboard the slave-ship named Gloria, the image depicts several factors that would have weakened immune systems and spread epidemics and other diseases among enslaved Africans. Examples include chaining people together, exhaustion (as shown in the man on the bottom left), anxiety (as shown in the men on the center-left), and the use of torture devices like the cat-o’-ninetails, which would have exposed enslaved Africans to each other’s blood. On the Gloria, Drake even “saw pregnant women give birth to babes, whilst chained to corpses” (p. 89).

John Chapman, & Co., To be Sold, on Wednesday the Tenth Day of May Next, a Choice Cargo of Two Hundred & Fifty Negroes (Charlestown, 1769).

This poster, which advertises a 1769 slave sale in Charleston, SC, shows how Black people were thought of as products during the slave trade, even when it came to their health and experience with epidemics. In response to an outbreak of smallpox aboard its slave-ship, Chapman & Co. assured potential buyers that “Every necessary Precaution hath since been taken to cleanse the Ship and Cargo, so that those who may be inclined to purchase need not be under the least Apprehension of Danger from Infection.” The poster solely addresses the potential buyers’ anxieties over catching smallpox, not the enslaved people’s health.

Matthew Carey, A Short Account of the Plague, or Malignant Fever Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1793).

When the infamous 1793 yellow fever outbreak occurred in Philadelphia, influential publisher Matthew Carey wrote a pamphlet entitled A Short Account of The Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia, which saw several editions. In the pamphlet, Carey viciously attacked Philadelphia’s African American community, accusing those who served as nurses of extorting outrageous sums for their labor and even plundering the houses of the sick. Black Philadelphians had been encouraged to treat the sick and bury the dead, partly due to the time’s widespread misconception that Black people were immune or highly resistant to the virus.

Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793 (Philadelphia, 1794).

In response to Carey’s attack, African American ministers Absalom Jones and Richard Allen (who, with William Gray, had mobilized Philadelphia’s Black community against the virus) co-wrote a pamphlet in defense of the city’s Black community; it was the first copyrighted pamphlet authored by African Americans. In it, Jones and Allen list honorable deeds committed by Black Philadelphians during the outbreak, explain that fees were sometimes high because patients were outbidding each other, refute the false notion of Black people’s immunity to the virus, and point out how Carey conveniently overlooked immoral acts committed by White Philadelphians during the epidemic.

A Case of Infectious Fever (from "84 South Street, 4 Doors from Callowhill Street," Philadelphia) Before the New York Board of Health (New York City, 1820). Etching.

This 1820 political cartoon criticizes the New York Board of Health's handling the yellow fever outbreak in 1793. One element that has carried over from the 1793 Philadelphia outbreak is the role of the African American as front-line worker; for example, the handkerchief on the Black woman’s head signifies the servant role. The political cartoon also illustrates that the medical profession in nineteenth-century America was dominated by White men--the Black woman is the one who has actually provided care to the sick man, yet the man facing her questions her integrity and dismisses her diagnosis as “outlandish hussey.”