One of the aims of the work that we do at Foundation for Change is not only to enable people to think critically about themselves and their life experiences, but to also to be curious about the world they live in. Learning about our personal past and past events is helpful because “without learning from our history we’re doomed to repeat it”. History reminds us that the kind of political and social upheaval we have been experiencing in the last few months is not new to human society; we have been here before. Often, history can help us understand the range of responses we see in our own time - our own, and of others’ in our community and around us. It also helps us to look critically at the responses of those who hold power…

 History shows that that there isn’t just “one story” or version of events. It can be helpful to think about the vested interests of those who exercise power and control over people’s lives, and we can often learn something and draw strength from hidden stories of how ordinary people and communities responded to take care of themselves and each other. “History from below” takes the approach of looking at the past through the lens of ordinary common people rather than leaders and kings. It’s especially important for feminist work and understanding other forms of oppression. Studies of slavery and unfree labour have expanded our understanding of racism, sexism and working-class struggle. 


Mary Mallon, or “Typhoid Mary”

Mary Mallon (1869-1938) also known as “Typhoid Mary” was an Irish born cook believed to have infected 53 people, 3 of whom died, with Typhoid fever. It’s presumed that Mary was infected by her mother during pregnancy. She was the first person in the USA identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the disease and so wasn’t aware that she had it. Once it was discovered, she was quarantined and ordered not to go back to work preparing food for families. She tried to leave cooking but could not afford to live and found herself forced to go back cooking for families illegally. Because she continued working as a cook under assumed names which exposed others to the disease, she was again quarantined and died after nearly 30 years in isolation.

As a poor, working class woman, Mary was involved in care work – wealthier families “outsourced” their cooking and cleaning to people like her, a pattern we still see today, in which poor women, people of colour and migrants are far more likely to occupy care roles deemed “essential” only at times of national crisis but in actual fact, underpin society’s ability to function. In Mary’s case, although she had received “orders” to isolate, she couldn’t afford to put food on the table if she didn’t. What conditions was she being asked to live in by giving up her job? One of no food and, potentially, a starving family. The social divide between those who literally cannot afford or are not able to “work from home” is something we have seen at play in the current crisis, with nurses, cleaners, security guards, supermarket cashiers, delivery drivers and warehouse staff all having to go to work amid a shortage of safety equipment and thereby risking their own and their families’ health, or facing food shortages and poverty if they “chose” to self-isolate.


Social transformation and infectious disease: a (very) brief history of industrial capitalism

Huge social changes occurred during the 19th century which meant that infectious disease became a pressing concern for those in power. There was a steep rise in the number of people living close together in cities, where people came to find work. Governments had to introduce measures that gave them the ability to control populations, and manage tensions arising from the unequal relationship between elites and the urban poor. In the late 18th century, the outbreak of yellow fever occurred alongside two fundamental events in world history relating to the expansion of the global slave trade and cotton industry.

The first was the development of the cotton engine in the spring of 1793. This was a piece of technology that would make possible the expansion of the cotton industry in the southern states of what is now called the USA. At the same time, the factory system in England (the cotton mills) was developing, leading to what we call the “industrial revolution.” The invention of the cotton mill saw a massive rise in both the supply and demand for cotton. It helped fuel the second feature in the early development of industrial capitalist society that occurred at the time. The growth of the transatlantic slave trade and new legislation related to property ownership (designed to apply to slaves) introduced in the newly independent colonies effectively extended white supremacy across the southern states, which relied upon slave labour for cotton production. Both of these events had far reaching consequences - we can look back at them as helping to shape the politics not just of the United States but of the whole world.


Yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia, 1793

In February 1973, not long after the American War of Independence, in which the colonies declared themselves independent from British rule, Congress introduced the first Fugitive Slave Act as a response to slave owners’ demands to have their newly formed “property rights” protected. It gave federal governments new powers to go after runaway slaves and return them to their masters in other states. It also made assisting runaways a crime. Around the same time, the first police forces had been introduced to a number of cities. Their job was pretty much the same – to protect property rights, primarily slaves, but also goods that were arriving on ships into the expanding cities and ports.

These new laws effectively institutionalised racial prejudice, discrimination and the persecution of black people. This was happening at the same time as slave populations in the Caribbean, in places like the French-owned plantations in Haiti, had revolted. This terrified plantation owners and there was a fear that rebellions would spread among black slave populations in other colonies. There was paranoia and a demonization of black people who were accused and suspected of incitement to rebellion, as more slaves arrived with their French colonial masters who had lost plantations in the uprisings and were seeking new ventures in the americas.

Amidst this prejudice and turmoil, in the spring of 1793, there was an outbreak of yellow fever beginning in Philadelphia - one of the largest and most important cities in the states at the time. The President George Washington and Alexander Hamilton (whose life is the subject of the recent hip-hop musical) lived here. When the outbreak began, they fled the city to save their own skins – it was usual for the rich and powerful, who had the means and resources to do so, to escape the personal likelihood of infection when disease broke out. More than 20,000 abandoned the city, leaving the poor and the sick to fend for themselves against the outbreak.One of the incredible things we see at this time is the way that help was organised amongst people in the city, who had to look out for each other when the elites – politicians and property owners - had escaped. Much of this help was provided by some of the first ever mutual aid organisations such as the Free African Society, which later became the Free African Church. Black people were, mistakenly, thought to be partially immune to infection, and so were called upon by the state to tend to the sick and the dying. Two former slaves, Alsom Jones and Richard Allen had formed the society after being expelled from other churches as a direct result of the racism and white supremacy extended just months before the outbreak by the Fugitive Slave Act. During the yellow fever outbreak, African Americans provided 2/3rds of the nursing work which took care of the sick and the dying in Philadelphia until the city was safe enough for the government and officials to return.

These churches survived as a form of community sustenance and support for black communities until the present day. Such forms of mutual aid have been vital to groups who have been systematically oppressed, exploited and discriminated against. We can see their echoes in the resistance movements today who are still fighting for the basic right to survive. We can also see how pandemics exacerbate and bring to the surface existing inequalities, bringing tension to the surface, as well as hope in the response of people “from below”.