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Voting Triumphs and Struggles and Racial Violence during The 1918 Flu Epidemic

The Transformative Justice Coalition and the Voting Rights Alliance, in honor of Black History Month, are reviving the daily special series devoted to sharing the legacies and stories of the sheroes, heroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage. This series was created in 2017 and will add 13 NEW articles this year. In addition to these daily newsletters all February long, this series also incorporates daily social media posts; an interactive calendar; and, website blog posts to spread the word broadly.

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This article was authored by Caitlyn Caitlyn Arnwine (formerly Caitlyn Cobb)


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Click the videos below to be taken to our YouTube channel and hear 02-06-24 segments on “Worthy: A Tribute to Joe Madison, 8th Circuit Fight Update, and Celebrating Black History Month” from the Igniting Change Radio Show broadcast with Hosts Barbara Arnwine, Esq. & Daryl Jones, Esq. or see all 4 segments in a playlist here.


02-06-24 - Segment 1 | Guest Speakers: Tony Hill

Segment 1 – Tribute to Joe Madison, Celebrating Black History Month

Guest Speaker: Tony Hill

02-06-24 - Segment 2 | Guest Speakers: Dianne Wilkerson

Segment 2 – 8th Circuit’s decision update on re: Voting Rights Act

Guest Speaker: Dianne Wilkerson


02-06-24 - Segment 3 | Guest Speakers: Prof. Ernest J. Quarles, Esq., and Caitlyn Arnwine

Segment 3 – Celebrating Black History Month

Guest Speakers: Dianne Wilkerson, Prof. Ernest J. Quarles, Esq., and Caitlyn Arnwine

02-06-24 - Segment 4 | Guest Speakers: Prof. Ernest J. Quarles, Esq., and Caitlyn Arnwine

Segment 4 – Celebrating Black History Month (continued)

Guest Speakers: Dianne Wilkerson, Prof. Ernest J. Quarles, Esq., and Caitlyn Arnwine

Note from the author: This article was originally written: February, 2022. This article is comprised of quotes from many different articles in order to provide a more comprehensive view of this time. All sources are linked in green throughout the article, with a full reference list at the end.

Today, February 15th, 2024, we remember the 1918 flu, and the struggles and triumphs of suffragists as well as the massacres of Black voters during that time.

Author’s Introduction

History is important. We have all heard the saying “those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it”. When we look at history, we must have respect for it and learn from those mistakes. And in an era where the U.S. is banning books that teach the reality of Black and Jewish history, we have to worry about repeating history. A mentor of mine who recently passed away, in the six months I knew him, caused me to have a paradigm shift – a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions- on my views of self care and my image of who I wanted to be. One paradigm shift he caused me to have is one I hope this article will instill in you too: it’s not just about not repeating history; it’s about changing so it won’t occur again.

We often hear the definition of insanity is repeating the same things and expecting different results; but, then why does America consistently resist change, instead embracing the same structural racism it so desperately wants to distance itself from. But it is impossible for America to heal from its generational traumas if it doesn’t discuss them; if we live in denial; if we consistently do the same things, yet are somehow surprised when we have the same results.

In an era where comments (comment # 6, March 23, 2021) are posted in forums that until the movie Watchmen came out, many had never heard of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, things must change. In today’s article, you will find many parallels from 100 years ago to today, from a pandemic to a war to a labor shortage and massacres of Black communities- and I will leave it up to you, reader, to decide if America is repeating the same mistakes. For America to dismantle structural racism, America has to decide to take accountability, process its trauma as a nation, and CHANGE.

The 1918 Flu

“‘These are sad times for the whole world, grown unexpectedly sadder by the sudden and sweeping epidemic of influenza,’ wrote Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in a letter to supporters in 1918.”

“Athens was a locked-down ghost town. The University of Georgia suspended classes indefinitely, and local authorities imposed a quarantine, ordering the closing of theaters, churches, restaurants and other businesses. Public gatherings were prohibited. An invisible killer stalked this city and this nation in the form of a quickly spreading pandemic, with a body count that multiplied day by deadly day. Hand in hand with the disease came fear and uncertainty in an already traumatized and divided America. In Washington, the crisis was met with a lack of leadership from the White House and Capitol Hill.

This isn’t describing 2020. “It was October 1918. Athens, the U.S. and the world were wracked by the ravages of the infamous Spanish flu that spread around the globe during and just after World War I. The plague lasted for nearly two years and, in sheer numbers, probably killed more people worldwide than the Black Death that scourged 14th-century Europe.”

“…[I]n Georgia, the Annual Report of the Georgia State Board of Health for 1918 minced no words in its appraisal of the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu pandemic. “We will never know how many succumbed to the disease in Georgia,” the report noted somberly, “but the death rate has been high.” The report said that the disease of 1918 took “a greater toll of human lives than any past epidemic as far back as we have a history… the whole world has never known such a death dealing pest to the human family as we have had from this disease.”

When American troops came home from the European trenches in November 1918, many who greeted them were still wearing surgical masks outdoors.”

“After the war ended, U.S. troops were demobilized and rapidly sent home. One unanticipated and unwanted effect of their return was the emergence of a new strain of influenza that medical professionals had never before encountered. Within months of the war’s end, over twenty million Americans fell ill from the flu. Eventually, 675,000 Americans died before the disease mysteriously ran its course in the spring of 1919. Worldwide, recent estimates suggest that 500 million people suffered from this flu strain, with as many as fifty million people dying. Throughout the United States, from the fall of 1918 to the spring of 1919, fear of the flu gripped the country. Americans avoided public gatherings, children wore surgical masks to school, and undertakers ran out of coffins and burial plots in cemeteries. Hysteria grew as well, and instead of welcoming soldiers home with a postwar celebration, people hunkered down and hoped to avoid contagion.”

“The flu pandemic that came home with the returning troops swept through the United States, as evidenced by this overcrowded flu ward [pictured below] at Camp Funstun, Kansas, adding another trauma onto the recovering postwar psyche.”

“When the 1918 influenza epidemic began, African American communities were already beset by many public health, medical, and social problems, including racist theories of black biological inferiority, racial barriers in medicine and public health, and poor health status. To address these problems, African Americans mounted efforts such as establishing separate hospitals and professional organizations and repudiating racist scientific theories. Contradicting prevailing theories about African Americans’ increased susceptibility to disease, it appears that during the 1918 epidemic the incidence of influenza was lower in African Americans. Although the epidemic had a less devastating impact on African American communities, it still overwhelmed their medical and public health resources. Observations about the lower rates of influenza in African Americans did not derail racist theories about the biological inferiority of black people or overturn conceptualizations of black people as disease threats to white people. When the epidemic ended, the major problems that African Americans faced still remained.”

See the source article below for recommended further reading on African Americans, Public Health, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.

“There Wasn’t a Lot of Comforts in Those Days:” African…

When the 1918 influenza epidemic began, African American communities were already beset by many public health, medical, and social problems, including racist theories of black biological inferiority, racial barriers in medicine and public health, …

Read more

The 1918 Flu’s Effect on the 19th Amendment and Women’s Suffrage

“‘This new affliction is bringing sorrow into many suffrage homes and is presenting a serious new obstacle in our Referendum campaigns and in the Congressional and Senatorial campaigns,’ [Carrie Chapman Catt] continued [in a letter to supporters in 1918]. ‘We must therefore be prepared for failure.'”

“Suffragists had been fighting for women’s right to vote for 70 years, and victory seemed almost in reach. Even with the United States fully mobilized for World War I. President Woodrow Wilson had come out in support of a constitutional amendment, and the House of Representatives had passed it.

Then the Spanish flu struck, and the leaders of one of the longest-running political movements in the country’s history had to figure out how to continue their campaign in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in modern times.

The first wave of the flu coursed through the country in the spring of 1918, ebbing by summertime. During that period, the Senate, dominated by southern Democrats determined to stop the enfranchisement of African-American women, was refusing to pass the bill to send the suffrage amendment to the states for ratification. Votes were announced twice, then canceled. By early fall, suffragists could see that they were two votes short of the necessary two-thirds for passage.

Finding those two senators was proving impossible. Maud Wood Park, the chief suffrage lobbyist, wrote to her husband that she felt ‘as if I were trying to swim in a whirlpool’ and that it was taking ‘every ounce of thought and energy in me.’ Something else needed to be done to break through.”

“But in September [1918] the flu came roaring back…[In response, The] U.S. Public Health Service issued a nationwide advisory to local health departments to prohibit large meetings and gatherings. Suffragists’ election campaigns were immediately compromised. Organizers had to postpone a train tour of previously arrested suffrage protestors, which had been expected to draw great crowds along its route from Washington, D.C., to Oregon. On the second floor of Suffrage House in the nation’s capital, Carrie Chapman Catt was “chained to her bed” by the flu. Nonetheless, she was determined to consult on strategy with a close ally of the president, Montana Senator John Walsh, but he too was stricken with the flu. Catt couldn’t come downstairs, and Walsh couldn’t go up, so an intermediary shuttled between them to conduct their confidential discussion.”

“Faced by bans on public gatherings, suffragists switched to the personal touch, reaching out directly to neighbors and friends. They emphasized their patriotism and quoted the president saying that votes for women was a proper reward for their wartime sacrifice. National headquarters provided more than a million pamphlets for distribution door to door and 300 weekly bulletins for placement in local newspapers. Women signed petitions urging male voters to pass the four states’ referendums.”

“More than anything, though, it was the extensive grassroots organizing suffragists had perfected that carried them through. They’d been laying the basis for their campaigns long before the influenza barreled in. Cities and towns in each state had their own organizations, linked to national strategy. Local women had developed sophisticated political skills. They knew how to identify opportunities and overcome obstacles—South Dakota and Michigan had already held several referendums. All that preparation was crucial.

The epidemic suppressed voter turnout, with three million fewer ballots cast than in the 1914 mid-term election. Nonetheless, the suffrage referendums in Michigan, South Dakota, and Oklahoma passed, each with a comfortable margin. Gratitude for the role women played during the war and now in the pandemic influenced the results. With so many physicians serving in the armed forces, nurses became the front line of care for the sick.

Only the Louisiana referendum failed. This was the first in the South, a region where women’s suffrage had been doomed by the overwhelming fear of African-American women voting. The state campaign, led by women who opposed national coordination and strategy, didn’t produce the energy, determination, and enthusiasm that brought victory elsewhere in the face of the flu crisis.”

Recommended Further Reading on this section:


Learn From Suffragists During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

‘Persevere Through the Highs and Lows.’ What We Can Still Learn From the Suffragists Who Fought for the Right to Vote During the 1918 Flu Pandemic. U.S. women in 1918 were fighting on two fronts….

Read more

How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Helped Advance Women’s Rights

When disaster strikes, it can change the fabric of a society – often through the sheer loss of human life. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami left 35,000 children without one or both parents in Indonesia alone. The Black Death killed more than 75…

Read more

For Black women, the 19th Amendment didn’t end their…

When it comes to the story of women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment, two competing myths dominate. The first is that when the amendment became law in 1920, all American women won the vote. The second is that no Black American women gained the…

Read more

Red Summer

Often referred to as “race riots”, amidst the epidemic of a flu, in the battle for the right for women to vote, White Supremacists terrorized Black communities in massacre after massacre, the worst of which was in 1917, and these episodes of violent backlash of Black people daring to want to vote ended with the Tulsa Massacre in 1921.

Ad I did cover Red Summer and Tulsa briefly in our new 2022 article remembering the Black massacres from the 1860’s-1921, below is more recommended reading on the subjects of Red Summer.


Racial violence and a pandemic: How the Red Summer of…

That was 1919, during what would later be coined the “Red Summer,” when communities across America were reeling from white mobs inciting brutality against Black people and cities…

Read more

Voter suppression was spark that ignited Ocoee Massacre.

The deadly violence that forced Ocoee’s Black residents to flee the area a century ago was, at its crux, an attempt at terrorizing people into forgoing their right to vote. But even in 2020, the long legacy of suppressing the Black vote remains…

Read more


White violence and Black protests during the 1918 flu…

Violence toward Black people and protests for racial justice were rampant in Philadelphia during the 1918 flu pandemic, in much the same way they have been during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Read more

The Influenza Epidemic and Jim Crow Public Health Policies..

The Influenza Epidemic and Jim Crow Public Health Policies and Practices in Chicago, 1917–1921.

Read more

Further history on this era: the post-epidemic election, strikes, labor shortages, women in the workforce, the Red Scare

“The disease finally diminished, but the viruses of hate and fear continued to plague this nation as the new year of 1919 dawned.

Americans weary of war and disease got little relief during 1919. Postwar inflation, anarchist bombings and labor strife dominated the headlines. Union organizers were often jailed, beaten or killed by police or corporate hirelings. Lynchings of black Americans and race riots that inflamed whole cities were so common by the middle of 1919 that African Americans coined the phrase “the red summer” to describe those bloody times. In his book, Red Summer, Cameron McWhirter says that the U.S. civil rights movement was awakened when black troops returned from what President Woodrow Wilson called a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” only to find that democracy was still not practiced in the “land of the free,” where black citizens were bound under Jim Crow-era American apartheid.

In the waning days of the Wilson administration, American authorities waged a war on domestic dissent that resulted in the jailing of thousands of antiwar activists, feminists, civil rights advocates and labor leaders. America filled its jails with political prisoners, including saintly socialist Eugene V. Debs, who languished in a jail cell at Atlanta Federal Prison for giving speeches critical of the war and the Wilson administration. Historian Frederick Lewis Allen called the 1920 Red Scare “a reign of terror.” In the 1920 election, Debs ran for president from his jail cell with the slogan “Vote for Convict Number 9653.” Nearly a million Americans did indeed vote for the socialist third party headed by Debs, lodging a protest vote of support and solidarity for the socialist leader and the thousands of other political prisoners locked up in America at the time. Republican Warren Harding won the 1920 election on a pledge of a “return to normalcy” in a jittery nation. Historians regard him as an inept president, but Harding granted Christmastime releases for Debs and many of his captive comrades nationwide.”

“Another element that greatly influenced the challenges of immediate postwar life was economic upheaval. As discussed above, wartime production had led to steady inflation; the rising cost of living meant that few Americans could comfortably afford to live off their wages. When the government’s wartime control over the economy ended, businesses slowly recalibrated from the wartime production of guns and ships to the peacetime production of toasters and cars. Public demand quickly outpaced the slow production, leading to notable shortages of domestic goods. As a result, inflation skyrocketed in 1919. By the end of the year, the cost of living in the United States was nearly double what it had been in 1916. Workers, facing a shortage in wages to buy more expensive goods, and no longer bound by the no-strike pledge they made for the National War Labor Board, initiated a series of strikes for better hours and wages. In 1919 alone, more than four million workers participated in a total of nearly three thousand strikes: both records within all of American history.”

“While illness, economic hardship, and racial tensions all came from within, another destabilizing factor arrived from overseas. As revolutionary rhetoric emanating from Bolshevik Russia intensified in 1918 and 1919, a Red Scare erupted in the United States over fear that Communist infiltrators sought to overthrow the American government as part of an international revolution. When investigators uncovered a collection of thirty-six letter bombs at a New York City post office, with recipients that included several federal, state, and local public officials, as well as industrial leaders such as John D. Rockefeller, fears grew significantly. And when eight additional bombs actually exploded simultaneously on June 2, 1919, including one that destroyed the entrance to U.S. attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in Washington, the country was convinced that all radicals, no matter what ilk, were to blame. Socialists, Communists, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), and anarchists: They were all threats to be taken down.”

“At a time when Americans wanted prosperity and normalcy, rather than continued interference in their lives, Harding won in an overwhelming landslide, with 404 votes to 127 in the Electoral College, and 60 percent of the popular vote. With the war, the flu epidemic, the Red Scare, and other issues behind them, American looked forward to Harding’s inauguration in 1921, and to an era of personal freedoms and hedonism that would come to be known as the Jazz Age.”


In human beings, we recognize that self care is important. More and more, Americans are embracing therapy and conversations around mental health are becoming destigmatized. As a society, we are beginning to understand that we must address our trauma in order to progress.

As a society we can agree solutions such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which “helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way”. CBT emphasizes a change in thinking, helping to find underlying unhelpful thinking styles.

America needs to have therapy. We cannot ban books and try to avoid our trauma or we will never recover: recovery in our society looks like a world with structural racism dismantled. All of the hurt outlined in today’s society and in 1918-1921 must be addressed and America must address and be honest about it’s unhelpful thinking styles. Why are there so many similar parallels between 100 years ago? Because America keeps doing the same thing and expecting different results.

America idealizes a fictionalized version of its past, and never questions wanting to so desperately go back to it. It will require hard work to challenge biases; to vote even when we are afraid our voice doesn’t matter because it DOES matter; to create a new structure of government free from racism, and it may not even happen in our lifetime; however, if we don’t try, we will always stay stagnant so that in another 100 years, articles draw parallels rather than progress.

This is not to say there has not been tremendous progress since 1918. Doing something different is what drove Americans to embrace democracy in the midst of this 2020 pandemic, just as those of the 1918 elections did; however, because of focus of technological advances and the use of mail in ballots, 2020 saw the second largest voter turnout in U.S. History where women once again were at the frontlines.

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  1. CNN, K. R. (n.d.). White violence and Black protests during the 1918 flu have a lesson for today. CNN. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/16/health/1918-flu-lessons-philadelphia-race-riots-wellness/index.html
  2. Cognitive behavioral therapy—Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/about/pac-20384610
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  5. For Black women, the 19th Amendment didn’t end their fight to vote. (2020, August 7). History. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/black-women-continued-fighting-for-vote-after-19th-amendment
  6. How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Affected the Suffrage Movement. (2020, June 3). Time. https://time.com/5833604/1918-flu-pandemic-women-suffrage-movement/
  7. How the Spanish flu nearly derailed women’s right to vote. (2020, April 20). History. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/pandemic-nearly-derailed-womens-suffrage-movement
  8. Interesting historical parallel and a little ass puckering: 1918 Flu epidemic, then 1919 Red Summer of white supremacist terrorism. (n.d.). ResetEra. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.resetera.com/threads/interesting-historical-parallel-and-a-little-ass-puckering-1918-flu-epidemic-then-1919-red-summer-of-white-supremacist-terrorism.398728/
  9. Magazine, S. (n.d.). How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Helped Advance Women’s Rights. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-1918-flu-pandemic-helped-advance-womens-rights-180968311/
  10. Racial violence and a pandemic: How the Red Summer of 1919 relates to 2020. (n.d.-a). NBC News. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/racial-violence-pandemic-how-red-summer-1919-relates-2020-n1231499
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  12. Stennett, D. (n.d.). Voter suppression was spark that ignited Ocoee Massacre. A century later, Florida’s Black voters are still facing obstacles. Orlandosentinel.Com. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/ocoee-massacre/os-ne-black-voter-suppression-ocoee-20201022-z6kwn5xuafdevlhkvy6g6effui-htmlstory.html
  13. The 1918 Spanish Flu Outbreak Parallels Today’s Coronavirus. (2020, April 1). Flagpole. https://flagpole.com/news/street-scribe/2020/04/01/the-1918-spanish-flu-outbreak-parallels-todays-coronavirus/
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