A Public Calamity

A local documentary filmmaker looks at lessons worth remembering from Richmond’s experience with the flu pandemic of 1918.

History had a moment this month.

The coronavirus persisted, and leaders of several sorts – doctors and nurses, first responders and elected officials – struggled in the direction of safety, control and hope. But many of them also looked back.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, in a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam expressing “grave concerns with and strong opposition” to the administration’s reopening plans, pointed to a symmetry:

“Throughout our country’s history,” the letter noted, in an apparent reference to the American eugenics movement, “Black and Brown people have been experimented on and used as unwilling test subjects before – we cannot allow that to be repeated here.”

Another letter, sent by a group of African American community members led by Mariah Williams of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, identified long-standing obstacles: “Due to decades of institutional racism and housing segregation, our communities have higher incidences of chronic illnesses and diseases.” Northam’s reopening plan, they argued, “puts our communities on the frontlines and makes us more susceptible to contracting the virus.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan tweeted about a short film produced by my wife, Hannah Ayers, and myself revealing Richmond’s struggle with the 1918 flu pandemic.

“As our country navigates these difficult times,” Kaine wrote, “it’s worth remembering that we have much to learn from our own history. Take a look.” 

McClellan urged, “We should not forget the lessons of the past as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

Writing about the film in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, Michael Paul Williams pointed to present-day health inequities and noted that the 1918 pandemic “carries a particular resonance in Richmond.”

And minutes after Mayor Levar Stoney announced his request to Northam for a reopening delay, he shared on Twitter a report by VPM’s Ben Paviour on historic health inequities here. Paviour’s report opened with a sketch on the 1918 flu experience in which he noted, “for Richmond’s African American community, health outcomes were intertwined with pervasive racism.”  

For many decision-makers, journalists and activists, the 1918 pandemic offered a distilled example of historic wrongs – and opportunities to make right.

So, what happened in 1918?  And why did Richmond hear that it should look back?

Quiet sparks ignite a blaze

When the flu came to Richmond in September 1918, it turned few heads. The United States and its allies appeared to be winning a world war. The economy was strong and unemployment was low. But soon, the flu raged: It would not be ignored.

Commonly known as the Spanish flu, the 1918 influenza acquired many names, some serving political purposes in an era of violent nationalism – the Russian pest, the Chinese fever and the Naples soldier were among them. But in fact, the flu’s place of origin is uncertain. The First World War was a powerful vector, shifting bodies and germs across the globe at terrifying speed and spreading the virus swiftly. And the flu’s impact was agonizingly clear: More than 50 million people died worldwide, which is more than perished in all 20th- and 21st-century wars combined.

The outbreak here began after a single case appeared on Sept. 13, 1918, at Camp Lee. Four days later, cases at the Army base – 25 miles south of Richmond – totaled more than 500.

City and state health officials met in Richmond to consider how to respond to the Camp Lee outbreak. They launched a public education campaign with posters, pamphlets and lectures in schools addressing good hygiene. They chose not to urge soldiers from Camp Lee to stay away, and many stationed there continued to visit the capital during their down time.

Two weeks later, Richmonders read reports of hundreds of cases here. Officials then asked Camp Lee to institute tighter controls. They told sick children to stay home from school. But Richmond was already behind and would spend the remainder of the epidemic catching up.

Stories document the community’s pain

As resident Helen Bowles recalled a half-century later, the flu made Richmond “a ghost town.”  About a week after the city recorded its first cases, Richmond officials closed schools, churches and a wide swath of businesses including theaters and soda fountains. Soon after, the Virginia Department of Health canceled the state fair.

Bowles, who was 18 in the fall of 1918, told a historian in 1972: “Stores closed on Broad Street. No pedestrian loitered on streets. Those who did mostly wore masks, thin squares of gauze tied on below the eyes to over the mouth … as weird as the silent streets.”

Health officials told residents to wash their hands, wear gauze masks and keep their distance. Often, the only sounds were church bells, tolling for every new victim.

Walter Browning, who delivered groceries, recalled “sitting on the front porch watching the funeral processions go by, several a day.” 

Bowles described harrowing scenes at an emergency hospital: “corpses being rolled down corridors passed so frequently, one no longer shuddered, became callused.”

The First World War had deployed many doctors overseas. Those who remained, in Richmond and across the country, called for volunteers and put medical students to work. Doctors had seen flu in the past: Every year, it killed some of the very young and very old, spreading but rarely out of control. But the 1918 flu did something new. It sickened and felled women and men in their 20s and 30s. It made children orphans. It sapped a generation. 

Errol Somay, who directs the Virginia Newspaper Project at the Library of Virginia, told me that he finds the flu experience most clearly conveyed through personal stories – like that of Adair Archer, a promising 24-year-old soldier stationed at Camp Lee.

“In the paper, you learn that he seemed to be creative, he wrote plays,” Somay recalls of Archer. “He was also outspoken at a fairly young age on behalf of women’s suffrage.”  

Archer was keen to enlist and fight, Somay notes. But initially recruiters turned him away because he was too lightweight. Instead, this graduate of the University of Virginia and Harvard volunteered for the YMCA at Camp Lee, where he could make his case to base officials. Eventually, he succeeded, earning admission to an officer training program, and before long, a transfer to Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, where he was recommended for a promotion.

But almost as soon as he arrived, Archer fell ill. The Times-Dispatch reported that Archer’s parents boarded the first train they could find to take them to Illinois, “desperately trying to see him because he’s critically ill,” Somay says.

Within a few days, the young soldier had died.

“This was in October,” Somay reflects, “but even in December, there are remembrances in the paper.”  The sudden death of a healthy young Army officer shook the sensibilities of Richmonders, just as similar deaths shocked communities across the nation.

“Just try to imagine, hearing that story hundreds of times,” Somay says, “for every individual with their life story and how it ended.”

Virus is no leveler in an unequal society

Many of this month’s calls to consider history in charting an effective response to COVID-19 carried a common refrain: Generations of discrimination and unequal access to quality health care puts people of color at greater risk for infection and death. 

This reality isn’t new, these critics noted, and it powerfully shaped the city’s experience with the 1918 pandemic.

The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site helps to tell the story. Ajena Rogers, a National Park Service ranger there, explains that the city turned a white high school, John Marshall High School, years before it moved to its current location, into an emergency hospital with segregated wards.

“The white patients are in the upper floors of the building,” Rogers says, “and the black patients are in the basement — with no windows.” 

When Maggie L. Walker, a banker and civic leader whose broad service to the community had earned her considerable sway, visited the John Marshall emergency hospital and saw the conditions in which black patients were being treated, she called Gov. Westmoreland Davis to demand action.

On that call, Rogers says, Walker raised an idea that had been mentioned by other black leaders but not yet advanced: If African American patients could not get equal care at the John Marshall hospital, then they should have their own hospital. 

“She helped to propel forward the idea of not just talking about establishing an emergency hospital for blacks, but making it happen,” Rogers says.

The state appropriated funds to convert the Baker School, an African American school, into an emergency hospital. “They would have black doctors,” Rogers notes, “they would have black nurses, to attend to the patients.”


Maggie Walker seems to have taken pride in her efforts. She recorded few details and fewer emotions in the diary she kept for many years. But a couple of entries suggest a quiet satisfaction with what she and her allies made possible.

“Flu raging,” Walker wrote on Oct. 17, 1918, “hospital giving good service.”  The following day she noted simply, the “hospital [is] a complement to our doctors and nurses.”

Reopening too soon

Elizabeth Outka, a professor of literature at the University of Richmond who co-curated the Valentine’s 2018-19 exhibit, “Pandemic: Richmond,” says that mass illness tends to highlight a society’s weaknesses — and the degree of its willingness to sacrifice for the common good.

“October and November are the really terrible months,” Outka says, considering the flu’s trajectory in 1918 Richmond. “By the end of October, though, it is starting to get better.” And city officials had begun to ask, “when is it … appropriate to lift these closure orders?”

Many business owners were eager to open the city. Some school principals went on record to urge classes back in session. Clergy worried for the spiritual life of the city while residents were stuck at home. And so, Outka explained, only three weeks after the closure orders were issued, these protests bubbled up to the person who would make the call: the city’s chief health officer, Roy Flannagan. Initially, he agreed, offering support for reopening based on an optimistic reading of data from the Virginia Department of Health.

“And then,” Outka tells me, “there was a doctor’s group from the Richmond Academy of Medicine and Surgery that said, please — no. Can we not open?  It’s too soon.” In a statement, the physicians said that lifting the restrictions would be “nothing short of a public calamity.” 

Flannagan took this advice with him on a sudden trip to Charlottesville, where his brother was dying from the flu. He placed a call back to Richmond, changing his mind. All businesses, schools and public places, Flannagan said, must stay closed.


“There was a fair amount of anguish,” Outka notes. Two theater owners rushed to Charlottesville to confront Flannagan in person. Their protests, together with those of other business owners, as well as principals and pastors, shook Flannagan’s confidence. He returned to Richmond wavering and then gathered with other decision-makers for a vote. 

“It comes down to a 2-to-1 vote and they do end up lifting the ban,” Outka says of a decisive meeting following days of debate. “Things are opened at the beginning of November. And by early December, of course, the flu is once again at near epidemic levels.”

Lessons in survival

In spring 1919, the virus mutated, weakened, and eventually went away, but not before it had infected at least 21,000 Richmond residents and killed more than 1,000. Across the state more than 16,000 died, while about 675,00 people perished nationwide.

Richmond’s experience was about average – less deadly than in many cities but worse than others in the region. With hindsight and study, it’s now clear why.

Researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2007 found that closure orders and social distancing during the 1918 flu pandemic had “a strong association” with lower rates of infection and death. Even Richmond’s patchwork response – closing, but doing so late and then opening too soon – nonetheless spared the city from grim scenes found elsewhere in the country, such as full morgues and mass burials. Here, smart moves made a difference.

People in Richmond and across the country proclaimed that the 1918 flu would never be forgotten. Yet it isn’t featured in our classrooms or in our memorials.


The First World War had much to do with this: Many people simply didn’t want to remember yet another tragedy. And as historian Edward L. Ayers reflects in our short film on Richmond in the 1918 pandemic, “Often, we like to remember stories in which we took charge of history – not when we succumbed to it.”  This rings true with the past pandemic, even as its lessons could guide us today.

With the 1918 flu, there was no glory in remembering. But there could be crisis in forgetting.

Lance Warren is a documentary filmmaker based in Richmond. “A Public Calamity,” the short film he co-directed with Hannah Ayers and presented by VPM, may be seen at futureofamericaspast.com.


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