“Abel and Moses won’t be coming today,” she said, reading the note the boy had given her. “They’re down with the itch.”
“Goddamn them shiftless sons of bitches,” he said. “We got three days of harvest, and they got to be sick.”
“Doc Jenks thinks it’s some kind of Negro smallpox,” she said. “Most of Darktown got it. He’s issuing a quarantine.”
“So you’re saying none of them are going to help us get the wheat in? Well, that beats all.”
“Those poor people.” The baby fussed against her breast.
“God’s judgment. Nobody asked them people to come up here.”
Historical note: At the turn of the 20th century, the United States had managed to avoid a major smallpox epidemic for the better part of a generation. But in 1900, a small wave of illness washed over communities of black farmers and laborers in a few southeastern states. The white community wasn’t alarmed. The disease, which some called “nigger itch,” was a Negro problem. As one local newspaper put it at the time: “Up to the present, no white people have been attacked and there is positively no occasion for alarm.” The blacks, it was believed, had brought it on themselves.
Then the disease began spreading to white people. The smallpox virus was colorblind.