Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Grave News: Yellow Fever Mass Grave in Montgomery, Alabama

CNN is reporting that a mass grave has been found in Montgomery, Alabama. It seems likely that this grave contains the victims of a yellow fever outbreak in the 1870's, possibly an 1878 outbreak which swept through Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. WSFA 12 News has detailed coverage including photos of the grave site and video coverage and the Montgomery Advertiser has coverage as well including photos and a write-up.

The comments at the Montgomery Advertiser are particularly revealing (and amusing, in a twisted kind of way). Any time you have a large gravesite found speculation starts running rampant. For example, one comment author writes (in response to a request for historical documentation):

That would be too much like right. They figure they can feed us anything and we will accept it. We all know that there is something underhanded concerning these bodies. However, we will never know anything about it because noone is willing jeopardize their namesake or hertiage to tell the truth, black or white.

So far there are charges of a coverup, theories that the grave is that of "slaves who were mass killed in the early 1800's", native american's, and a slew of other suspects. Of course, the simplest answer of yellow fever victims is conveniently ignored or brushed aside.

The thing is, there were many, many, many yellow fever outbreaks on the Southern coasts (and South in general) throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. There are historic markers attesting to this fact, it is well documented on genealogy sites, documented in books, and published in journals.

The tragedy here isn't that there are people willing to leap onto any conspiracy theory, the tragedy is they do so at the expense of the memories of countless individuals - Black, White, Native American, and every other skin color, ethnicity, and religious creed you care to name. These epidemics were a part of life in the 19th century, one that we've managed to forget. The victims were often buried in mass graves, away from other burying places due to fears over contagion. These locations have been lost through the intervening years as memories faded and people pushed horrible chapters in their lives behind them. That leaves us, their descendants, to stare in mixed wonder and horror at the tolls disease took in times past. No doubt Montgomery will work to properly lay the remains of the dead to rest, and memorialize them. We should all keep in mind that these are not the nameless dead, but fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters whose bodies had to be disposed of as quickly as possible, and reflect on the lessons for today. History can spring up anywhere, and unexpected bits of history can be sharp, bittersweet lessons like that in Alabama.
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