Science  /  Comparison

In 1918 and 2020, Race Colors America’s Response to Epidemics

A look at how Jim Crow affected the treatment of African Americans fighting the Spanish flu.

Race and patient care

When the flu epidemic of 1918 came to Chicago, black people were blamed, and that blame came directly from John Dill Robertson, the city’s commissioner of public health. It wasn’t just white medical officials who engaged in this sort of blame. Robertson had a tremendous influence on the way the Chicago Tribune covered migration, and there, the prejudice was plain. Even before the pandemic reached Chicago, the Tribune’s coverage of migration was alarmist.

A March 5, 1917, headline from the Chicago Daily Tribune, as it was known at the time, blared, Rush of Negroes to City Starts Health Inquiry.

The flu simply heightened those existing prejudices.

Half a Million Darkies from Dixie Swarm to the North to Better Themselves, the paper proclaimed July 8, 1918. In the corresponding article, reporter Henry M. Hyde laid out a series of pathologies: Black people moving to Chicago from the South, he wrote, “are compelled to live crowded in dark and insanitary rooms; they are surrounded by constant temptations in the way of wide-open saloons and other worse resorts.”

The reason for such ills wasn’t any innate inferiority that could be attributed to blackness. In an academic paper about Jim Crow and public health, Betsy Schroeder Schlabach, a professor of history and African American studies at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, explained how discriminatory housing policies created ghettos. Black people were relegated to limited parts of the city. Housing was overcrowded, and white landowners became slumlords, charging rents that were 15% to 25% higher for black tenants, and then refused to make needed repairs when asked.

“The way that the Tribune, especially, talks about disease is the same way they talk about the Great Migration: swarms of migrants coming to the city and bringing with them all sorts of disease,” Schroeder Schlabach said. “There’s similar ways that today we talk about the border or the way definitely [President Donald] Trump talks about immigration crisis and disease.”

Interestingly, the Nov. 2, 1918, edition of the Cleveland Advocate bore the headline: Flu Shuns Us, Says Health Doctor, referring to black people. The idea that black people were not getting the flu, or dying from it the way white people were, was a widely held belief at the time, Gamble said. Getting a clear picture of what black people experienced nationally during the flu pandemic is difficult. Gamble thinks that segregated black neighborhoods may have functioned as a makeshift quarantine. But it’s also likely that instances of black illness were underreported.