The current Covid-19 pandemic has assaulted our city not unlike the devastating Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. The epidemic of 1878 was the fifth of six epidemics beginning in 1828, but by far the worst. In January 143 years ago, Yellow Fever had amassed 17,000 cases in our metro area compared to nearly 70,000 cases of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. However, there were far more deaths from Yellow Fever - up to 5000 in Memphis in the 3rd wave of the mosquito-borne plague. Today, the same geographical area is just short of 1000 deaths from COVID-19.
The sway of anxiety from lack of control, and the weariness of isolation would be comparable for both generations in the clutch of conflicting reports and policies. The plagues bear similarities in their pall over our community.
Many of the well-to-do citizens left Memphis for Atlanta and St Louis in 1878. The grass appeared greener and the “fever” was less robust. Many of the affluent have left again with our current pandemic for their lake houses and vacation homes. For those who cleared out as well as those who have stayed in the city, “sheltering in place” and “safer at home” are somewhat of a blessing if one lives in a secure neighborhood with utilities paid, groceries delivered, and a stable job virtually accomplished from the sofa or home office.
In 1878, the African American population didn’t have the means to evacuate the city, and providentially became the first responders, the volunteer fire and police force, and medical assistants to those who were sick and dying. Only 7% of the African Americans died from Yellow Fever, though large numbers contracted the disease.
The Memphis of 1879 during the sixth epidemic, lost its charter and was bankrupt and all but slid into the Mississippi River from the high Chickasaw Bluff. The miracle of a vaccine was still 20 years away, but leading and remaining city organizers were enlightened by the Lord to clean up and clear out the putrid waste encompassing our city and air quality. Drilling for clean water, they discovered the Memphis aquifer. Tireless vigilance to cover the open sewers running through the streets brought redemption through disinfection of our water supply. A new day dawned, and health and hope smiled on our city as it re-defined itself. Memphis was reborn!
Within 11 years, the Deadrick Plantation would be subdivided by Eugene Meacham and the beautiful legacy would begin for the African Americans who had held our city together during the Yellow Fever Epidemic. An intact secure and promising future was planted for them in the then southeastern side of Memphis and called “The Mound.” Before Harlem, before Rosewood, there was Orange Mound for the 30,000 heroic African American citizens who stayed through the nightmare of the city dying.
Five decades of prosperity and pride in identity and purpose came to a tragic end with the assassination of Dr. King and the ensuing unrest. This turbulent period was followed by the introduction of the drug trade in the 70s and 80s, which led to the migration of Orange Mound residents out of the community. The property values plummeted, wages fell, and the community morphed from majority homeowners to primarily renters. The original Orange Mound was a memory.
I would like to see Memphis, once again, redefine itself. For lower wage workers, the Memphis economy has been clobbered. Jobs are lost, long food supply lines rival the COVID testing lines, and government remedies are illuding us. Crime and homicides have reached the highest numbers in history, and anxiety throughout the Shelby County area is palatable. Orange Mound is in the bullseye.
Housing for the poor is unacceptable. Yet, with landlords strapped and missing rent payments, evictions are looming and without a miracle, as many as 10,000 people could be on the streets in a matter of weeks. Our already fragile public school system has been whacked with an impossible choice between student and staff safety and effective teaching and learning.
The far majority of residences in Orange Mound are single moms. They have kept the light on. I am awed observing their patience, resilience, and commitment in the health restrictions of the day. These restrictions, while now government mandated, are in reality not all too different from what OM moms experience outside the confines of the pandemic. Restaurant choices, and the means to enjoy them, elude most in our zip code. Sparce choices in food drives is no different from the choices at the corner market where dairy and fresh produce is absent. Having children under their feet and not in school is no different as the majority live in 2-bedroom homes with multiple children, and other family members homesteading. Access to medical professionals hasn’t changed. The majority have no primary care physician. The anxiety of yet one more problem beyond their control is simply added to the next layer of the file marked “Impossible without faith and the Lord’s touch”.
I am learning so much to emulate from tapping into their faith, their hope, and a life without the excesses. They come to work and go home. Recreation is not an option. The job is life, and the role is parenting. Trusting the Lord patiently is the mantra.
African American women in poverty are often powerless. Yet, there is a sturdiness and a confidence among my friends that suggest “this too will pass.” The vicissitudes of their lives find little traction, because they cling to the one true hope. Psalm 27, one of my favorites, reminds us that “I know I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, therefore I will wait for the Lord”.
I believe we are likely still in the middle of the pandemic. Could this be the catalyst to now give Memphis a 3rd chance at redefining itself? I see a Memphis on the horizon that will build and help finance homes in Orange Mound for the many single moms who can and will pay their mortgages. I see better law enforcement strategies to discourage youth from gang affiliation and to identify the gang members who are recklessly endangering our neighborhoods. I see fully stocked grocery stores, street repairs, houses built to code and inspection requirements met. I see beautification of lots, and schools reopened and athletics thriving in the high schools. I see East Memphis moving west and investing with guidance and engagement of the community’s residents. A New City on the bluff. Memphis in its 3rd iteration.
The ubiquitous and contagious virus is still mightily impacting our city. We might drill-down and learn from our sisters that God is on His throne, He loves us, He redeems all that He causes or allows, and He meets the needs of His children. He is ever new, and redemption is always His plan for His daughters.
I believe, but also pray, the next version of Memphis will provide for these daughters who are the descendants of the African American heroes of the Yellow Fever of 1878. Their DNA is hearty, sturdy, and able.