Immunity’s Haves and Have-Nots

The scourge of yellow fever that hit New Orleans from 1817-1905 brought a gruesome death to untold numbers in the city. Among survivors, a social hierarchy formed that favored the immune, and mythologized the disease to justify slavery.

To avoid social purgatory, people actively tried to get sick to solidify their survivor status. And while scores died, doctors spread the insidious myth that black people were immune to the disease and could thus continue propping up the cotton industry.

As with present-day HIV and Ebola, "Diseases that cause mass human suffering are [often] used to justify prejudice," says Stanford University history professor Kathryn Olivarius.

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