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Health Team

White violence and Black protests during the 1918 flu have a lesson for today

Posted February 16, 2021 3:19 a.m. EST

— Adella Bond fired her revolver outside her window into the South Philadelphia air, hoping to attract police as a mob of Irish American people gathered around her home to tell her she wasn't welcome.

Bond, a Black woman who was a municipal court probation officer, knew that racial conflicts unfolded in neighborhoods that had once belonged to only White people but were beginning to house Black people as they migrated from the South to the North during the Great Migration, said Kenneth Finkel, a professor in the department of history at Temple University in Philadelphia, and the author of "Insight Philadelphia: Historical Essays Illustrated."

Black people were seeking work, property ownership and refuge from Southern violence from 1916 to 1970, when ultimately millions of them traveled north for industrial employment available there because of the labor shortages that started during World War I — even during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Southern Black people sought those same features, as well as better quality of life, through World War II and afterward (although segregation and other obstacles persisted for a while).

Bond knew that White people had welcomed a Black family to a nearby neighborhood by harassing them and burning their furniture in the street earlier that July. She was also aware that another woman of color had previously lived in the house on Ellsworth Street that Bond moved into on Wednesday, July 24, 1918 — so she supposed that the area may have been safer for Black people.

The second time she walked down that street, however, she was stoned. The violence came to her front door two days later, when about 100 White men and boys surrounded her house on Friday, July 26.

"I heard them talk about having guns, and I saw the guns and cartridges. At last a man came along with a baby in his arms," Bond told her attorney on July 30, 1918, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. "He handed the baby to a woman, took a rock and threw it. The rock went through my parlor window. I didn't know what the mob would do next, and I fired my revolver from my upper window to call the police. A policeman came, but he wouldn't try to cope with that mob alone, so he turned it into a riot call."

The rock thrower, who had been shot in the leg, was arrested and held without bail. Police arrested Bond for "inciting to riot," and the events of that day precipitated a slew of racial conflicts and riots that constituted one of the most violent periods in Philadelphia's history.

Violence instigated by White people, violent police encounters and protests for racial justice were rampant in Philadelphia during the 1918 flu pandemic. George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, was killed by a White policeman in May 2020. That killing and others by police led to the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum over the summer, in terms of national and global reach, numbers of protests and new supporters beyond Black communities.

Despite the challenges Black Philadelphians faced in 1918, they, too, summoned the spirit needed to work toward change.

The impact of these crowded race riots on the flu case and death rates in Philadelphia is unknown. The riots took place "during a lull between the first and second waves of the pandemic," said Dr. Jeremy Brown, an emergency care physician and author of "Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History," via email. "As such, and during the continuing fighting during the great war in Europe, attention was surely focused on other issues. The riot was not a 'superspreader' event, because at the time there wasn't much disease to be spread. That came back in the fall."

"We may not be able to establish casualty scientifically or historically between the outbreak of disease and the virus of racism, but we understand all too well that when we fear for our very lives, our mortality can shred our civility," Brown said in an unpublished paper on the topic. "This dread exposes a primal panic that unleashes the violent human impulse to blame and hurt others in ways inexcusable. There are many lessons we've learned from looking at the history of pandemics, but some, regrettably, we never seem to take to heart."

Sources of the ire

Philadelphia had the largest Black population of any Northern city in 1910, although African Americans were only 5% of the city's population, said Charles Hardy, a professor of history at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

The Great Migration resulted in Black newcomers in White neighborhoods and housing shortages, to which realtors responded by increasing rent prices — effectively causing housing competition among Black and White people, and relocation by those who couldn't afford the new prices.

READ MORE: From the front lines, Black nurses battle twin pandemics of racism and coronavirus

Bond moved into "a working class, tough Irish-American neighborhood," Hardy said. "Philadelphia is historically known as the city of neighborhoods." The boundaries of ethnically specific neighborhoods weren't to be crossed then.

Rather than blame the realtors, White residents harassed their new Black neighbors for their struggles and for not adhering to social codes in the segregated city. "The city's a powder keg at this point in time," Hardy said.

Catching fire

A city tense over war, the flu pandemic and race riots erupted as what started at Bond's house that Friday night spread across about 2 square miles. Crowds of hundreds of rioters became thousands as the unrest escalated.

"When things exploded," Finkel said, "it went on for days. Every night was another chaotic mess."

On Saturday, a Black man named William Box was accused of thievery and chased by White men. A police bureau clerk tried to stop Box, who allegedly pulled a knife and cut the clerk's arm.

"Several policemen arrived on the scene, but were unable to curb the mob of whites and 'the negro was struck many times by persons in the crowd,'" wrote Vincent P. Franklin, then an author and professor of history, in a 1975 paper on the race riots. Cries of "'lynch him'" caused the police to send for help, "'and a squad of reserves arrived in time to prevent the mob doing serious injury to the negro,'" Franklin continued, quoting a Philadelphia Inquirer report. They arrested Box and took him to the hospital.

The next morning, a White mob chased Jesse Butler as he walked home from a party. While running, Butler fired a shot into the mob and allegedly injured Hugh Lavery, a White man. Police who had arrived soon found that Butler was also wounded and took both men to the hospital, but Lavery died before their arrival.

Hostility spread as groups of White people attacked Black people on their regular travels throughout Philadelphia. Civilians, as the Home Defense Reserves typically used for emergencies, assisted around 250 policemen in maintaining a riot zone near Bond's neighborhood.

Black people felt tension and concern over police brutality, Hardy said. "Philadelphia police forces were segregated, (and) most policemen were political appointees. ... Then there's this discriminatory enforcement of laws."

One of those was a type of stop-and-frisk practice. White patrolmen Roy Ramsey and John Schneider stopped a Black man, Riley Bullock, on an avenue and searched him on Monday. After finding a pocketknife Bullock legally carried, the patrolmen beat and arrested him. As they took Bullock into the station, he was fatally shot in the back, Finkel said, by "a negro, who was seen making his escape. The police gave chase, but the alleged assailant managed to escape," reported many local newspapers that ran the unsubstantiated story.

The next day brought the revelation that Bullock was killed by a bullet from the gun of patrolman Ramsey — who claimed that he slipped and his gun fired when he was taking Bullock into the station.

Bullock wasn't the only victim of police violence. When Ramsey and Schneider arrested a Black man named Preston Lewis that morning, they beat him so severely that Lewis had to be taken to the hospital. As Lewis laid on the operating table, Schneider reportedly began striking him before ultimately being carried out of the room by White officers.

Tuesday was calmer, but mobs tried to lynch a Black man for allegedly stealing a watermelon that day. "When it's all done four days later, you've had several hundred people who were injured, four people dead," Hardy said. The houses of dozens of Black families had been destroyed, forcing them to flee. And though White people had instigated most of the violence, the majority of the 60 people arrested were Black.

"What you have in the early 1900s and today is rising nativism, White ethnocentrism and White supremacy," Hardy said. "After World War I is when you witness the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan which, in the 1920s, becomes a major political force. ... The culture wars that we're witnessing today are very much reminiscent of the culture wars in the 1920s. It's basically fear of a White minority."

READ MORE: Fed study: 1918 flu deaths linked to relative strength of Nazism

"There are chilling parallels between what we have seen in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic with the revelation of quite brutal police killings of African Americans and what actually happened back in 1918," Brown said.

"That story is a very sobering one — not least for which it reminds us that this kind of violence against the African American community is nothing new, sadly," he said. "We know how long it's been around, but when it comes to pandemics, it's been around for well over a century."

Coming together to resist

Many Black Philadelphians organized to prevent experiencing further violence, destruction and death at the hands of White people, Franklin wrote.

Ministers and other prominent Black Philadelphians met and wrote a letter to the city's director of public safety. In it, they castigated the police force over the lack of protection and arrests of Black people during the violence, Franklin wrote, quoting the letter as reprinted by local newspapers.

In court, Black lawyers defended Black people who had been arrested during the riots. Black ministers and civic leaders formed the Association for the Protection of Colored People (or Colored Protective Association) in August, immediately gaining hundreds of members who worked and fundraised to represent prosecuted Black people and to support the civil rights of Black Philadelphians.

The association was responsible for the prosecution of patrolman Ramsey for killing Bullock, and patrolman Schneider for assaulting Lewis, but neither of the men were convicted — partly due to fellow Black patrolmen backing down from testifying what they had really seen.

Black Philadelphians did succeed in getting the commander and all members of the police force transferred out of the 17th District, where most of the rioting had occurred. "This event was hailed as a major victory for Philadelphia's black community," Franklin wrote.

The association achieved mobilizing Black Philadelphians by informing them of their lawful civil rights, advising them on handling racial discrimination, giving speeches in churches and providing legal assistance for those who had been arrested or assaulted. When Black people made protests to government officials about violent White sailors, the commander of the Fourth Naval District investigated the situation, Franklin wrote.

"When you look at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the calls for police accountability and changes in police behavior," Hardy said, "we can see a sort of predecessor to that in Philadelphia during the First World War."

"These were the more significant and graphic results of the organized efforts of blacks to improve their situation in the City of Brotherly Love in the aftermath of the July, 1918, riot," Franklin wrote.

Thoughts on history and hope

The similarities between the race riots of 1918 and racial conflicts today emphasize the importance of knowing the truth, Finkel said. "It's really important not to just pat ourselves on the back and move on and forget the ugly chapters. Those ugly chapters are very informative and useful and real."

READ MORE: For churchgoers during the Covid-19 pandemic, a deadly lesson from the 1918 flu

The parallels also highlight that the movement toward racial equality is "one step forward, two steps back," Hardy said.

"We've gotten unprecedented numbers of people of color in political office on the state level," he added. "We've got Kamala Harris as vice president. So, it's a mixed bag. It's just this ongoing struggle. Clearly White supremacy and nativism are very strong movements in the United States today. On the other hand, a movement towards greater racial and gender equality I think continues."

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