Promoting Positivity: Securing Memphis's Image in Times of Crisis

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Virginia Tech

Situating the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis's long history shows how concern over Memphis's national reputation influenced how city leaders dealt with crisis. Throughout its history, Memphis government officials and business leaders promoted Memphis as a good city to do business, free from disease and racial strife. Despite their best efforts, they could not deny explosive incidents of racially-based violence or disease outbreaks. Instead, they tried to mitigate negative repercussions on the local economy during times of crisis. When the 1878 yellow fever epidemic struck, the Citizen's Relief Committee, the impromptu government formed by business leaders after outbreak, promoted Memphis as a functioning white city that was operating the best it could under terrible circumstances so the city could resume normal economic activity once the fever passed. This became the dominant narrative, repeated by newspapers across the country in 1878 and historians today.

This narrative is problematic because it ignores black Memphians, who composed of 80% of the city's population after outbreak. Instead of recognizing black Memphians participation in relief activities, they promoted stories in the media about lazy or riotous African Americans to justify denying sufficient aid to the black community. Catholics had better luck earning the gratitude of Memphis's leaders. They worked with the white government and charities as nurses and fundraisers, and earned a glowing reputation in national newspapers. The inclusion of African Americans and Catholics in this thesis tells a more complete story and challenges white Memphians' carefully cultivated narrative.

Memphis, Yellow Fever, Race, African Americans, Catholic Church, Epidemic, Disaster, Public Health, Urban Boosterism, Reconstruction