Black nurses saved our ancestors during the 1918 – 1920 pandemic
Is it 1918 or 2021?*
As we consider moving from B.C. –before coronavirus — to some semblance of societal normalcy after the 2021 pandemic is declared gone, I’ve often pondered how my family survived similar and perhaps worst conditions during 1918-19.
In 1918, the year that my late maternal grandmother, Mary Helen Wilkes (later Owen and Douthy became her married names) was born in Springfield, Mo. on a sunny April day. A health pandemic was raging.
My late great-grandmother, Edna Wilkes Robinson, was fortunate to receive special care from our large family. My family provided vigilant attention to protecting the newborn from the outbreak. That’s all I have heard about the period involving my grandmother’s early life. It would take at least one year for the worst of the so-called Spanish flu pandemic to close its horrible chapter of death and lingering illnesses across the nation.
By 1919, several verified reports revealed that approximately 50 million people or one-fifth of the world population and 25 percent of the U.S. residents, were affected. At its end, the world population life span projections dropped by 12 years due to the horrible rage of the pandemic https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/.
In many ways, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is identical to what occured in 1918. Virtually every corner of this world was impacted with societal and health crises. The pandemic environment in 2020 is errily similiar to what occured during the so-called Spanish flu of a century ago. The descrption of life in the 1918-19 period included periods of massive anxiety, frustration and fear. Some of the descriptives and visual images displayed closed schools, limited outside caregivers for children, limitations on large gatherings in public spaces, dismal retail sales, farmers’ fiscal woes and government directives on how and when to remove the safety in shelter orders. There was debate and violent positions by loud members of the 1918 citizenry that match protests today in favor of fully re-establishing the workplace and schools’ face-to-face routines. (See file:///E:/Nebraska%20history%20and%20flu%20epidemic%201918%20onward%20NH1957BacktoNormal.pdf).
Effective vaccines would have been welcomed
Unlike the many folk today who are questioning whether to receive the necessary protections against the current pandemic — otherwise known as vaccinations — those living and dying during the 1918-1920 crisis would have welcomed such medical/science advancements.
Did the U.S. open too soon?
The outbreak was first detected in the spring of 1918. The “rush” to get ‘back to normal’ was cited as the cause for the next wave of the outbreak in the fall of 1918.What happened on and after Oct. 7, 1918 when the pandemic re-entered my home state of Nebraska was devastating. Death and illnesses climbed to epidemic porportions. Whether in the Midwest or other parts of the country, the realities were the same: Limited to no traditional acitivites during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s (1919) holiday seasons. The year 1919 opened up with the virus waning, yet still active across the nation.
I have found that history is a wonderful teacher. If we are willing to let the ‘student (today) meet the teacher (historical evidence), we can learn more about how to cope and effetively survive during such times of uncertainity.
Some lessons for today from yesterday
1. Find out what’s true and what’s not. Debunk myths and move forward with great information. Here’s a good source about the myths of the pandemic of 1918
2. How did the U.S. President and his administration handle the 1918 pandemic challenges
3. Take advantage of quality and helpful medical, personal adjustment and health information delivered via multimedia outlets. For instance, some federal agencies offer a wealth of information to help the collective “us” live through the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions and more. Here are a few.
Letter carrier in New York wearing mask for protection against influenza. New York City, October 16, 1918. Letter carriers, mass transit workers, and others who came in contact with the public, were especially vulnerable to disease. Wearing a face mask helped them avoid contagion: National Archives at College Park, MD. Record number 165-WW-269B-15
4. Grieving and buying the dead in 1918
5. Taking care of family, oneself
Out of one “pan” and into another
My journey of seeking insight about the 2020 coronovirus outbreak led me to pages and footage of 1918. That is also the health turbulent year that my grandmother Helen Wilkes was born in Springfield, Mo. https://www.ozarksalive.com/covid-19-reminds-of-1918-spanish-flu-pandemic/.
The first”Safe in Shelter” or ‘Stay at Home’ directive from my current home, prompted me to sit still and wonder how my grandmother — we called her Mama Helen — survived her infancy during the widespread outbreak in Missouri and her eventual home of Omaha, Nebraska. . I have thought a lot about my great-grandmother, Edna Robinson, who brought baby Helen into this world of a flu epidemic. My great-grandmother worked as a domestic in a private home. How did she care for her daughter. How did my other family members live through this crisis?
I am left without answers to my natural queries. It also never occured to me to ask my great-grandmother, grandmother and other relatives who were alive during that deadly period about their experiences. Who knew that the global citizenry would experience such devastation. The best solutions to my questions has been to pour through lots of research from video and audio remembrances and lots of periodicals.
My grandmother, Helen Wilkes and her mother and a large gathering of our family at home in Springfield, Missouri in the 1920s. Source: Personal collection
No matter what you may make of the current/2020 period of social distancing, hyper attention to health and safety measures and mounting cases of those sick with COVID-19 and worse, we are living and creating our “new normal.”
It’s not pretty, yet it is a great time of reflective exercises. Thank the health care professionals, embrace your close-knit family ties, learn something along with the children who are in school via virtual settings, good deeper in your spiritual journey, read or listen to books on tape, count all of your blessings and remain alert for nuisances that shift your thinking to flexible survival modes. I take comfort in knowing that many of our families overcomed huge obstacles that included no chance for a vaccine as we are now afforded that possibility. #onlythestrongsurvive.
*I originally wrote this column a year ago. I updated the current year reference to 2021 and vaccine information