HOLLY SPRINGS • When local historian Phillip Knecht of Hill County History saw renewed interest in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, he decided it was a great opportunity to explore local history in Holly Springs through new digital means.
Hill Country History was started in 2015. Knecht said he started a website and Facebook page with the intent of sharing local history in the Mississippi Hill Country, which includes 18 counties in North Mississippi with ties to the Chickasaw Cession.
When shelter-in-place protocols were implemented, Knecht began doing a Quarantine History Series with the thought that people might enjoy the diversion. He began doing a Quarantine Live History Series via Facebook Live a few weeks ago with the intention of offering a more interactive experience for viewers.
“We’re trying to take advantage of people not only being at home now, either because they have to be or social distancing, but also taking advantage of people’s interest in history and just trying to give people something besides what’s going on to focus on, at least for a little bit,” Knecht said.
Making the first topic of the Quarantine Live History Series the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 was an easy decision for Knecht, as locals were already seeing the correlation between yellow fever and COVID-19 and were curious about knowing more. Holly Springs is home to the Yellow Fever Martyrs Church and Museum, the only museum in the United States dedicated to yellow fever. According to the museum’s website, the disease killed more than 100,000 Americans between 1693 and 1905.
He decided to do a three-part series exploring the similarities and differences. He planned to film the final installment Wednesday.
For the videos, Knecht goes on site to air the video so people can see the space and visualize the history as he shares it. For the final installment, he planned to film at the Hill Crest Cemetery, which contains a mass burial ground for victims of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.
He said it is not a lecture, as he instead focuses on reading words from people who were living during the time. He uses primary sources, such as letters written from family to family, and said they all seemed to imply that while people knew yellow fever was around, no one was concerned. Some people thought it was a hoax. Knecht said a popular phrase was, “This whole yellow fever is one-tenth sickness and nine-tenths scared.”
“Those words are very similar to the words you’re seeing nowadays. People are doubting this is serious or doubting that we need to do social distancing. This is literally history repeating itself,” Knecht said.
Knecht said Holly Springs ignored the crisis and was almost destroyed.
“Ten percent of the population died in two months. The town took decades to recover (and) lost about $10 million (2020 money value), so it was a really bad situation,” Knecht said. “We didn’t have to do that. A lot of towns took it seriously and enacted quarantines, and they recovered much faster.”
Knecht said he has received great feedback from the videos and that it is leading to a lot of conversations and interactions via social media. He hopes to continue the Quarantine Live History Series with other local history and said if social distancing guidelines lessen, he may travel throughout the region to expand the history he covers.
From both a public health standpoint and as an historian, he hopes the similarities between yellow fever’s response and COVID-19 inspire people to learn from the past and avoid similar devastating outcomes.
“I think it’s bringing attention to the reason historians do what we do,” Knecht said. “We’re living in times where (history) is actually repeating itself, so this is what we should avoid and this is why we should study history.”