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Black Kansas Citians Died At A Higher Rate During The 1918 Flu, The Same Is True 100 Years Later

Black Americans were more likely to die from the 1918 flu, but research shows they may have been infected at lower rates.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

A lack of progress addressing health care disparities means history is being repeated with the same populations that suffered a high death rate during the 1918 flu experiencing another round of tragic losses.

In Kansas City, Missouri, Blacks and Latinos are dying of COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of whites.

The current pandemic has laid bare the deep inequities that Black leaders have been calling attention to for generations. Dr. Carmaletta Williams, executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, says the situation facing African Americans in Kansas City today is not new.

“When we hear these numbers, no Black or brown person is surprised. We go, ‘Yep, that sounds about right,’ while other people are going, ‘Really. Why is that?’ You know, this is the land of the free, but it's not the land of equity,” Williams says.

In fact, many of the health disparities that exist today for Black Kansas Citians are the same that led to higher deaths during the 1918 flu. While a segregated city may have protected some Black Americans from infection, a lack of significant progress to reduce systemic racism in health means the same populations are suffering more than a century later.

Dr. Williams’ family arrived in Kansas City in the late 1800’s.

“My great grandmother, Marie Jane Taylor, and her husband, Frank James Taylor arrived in Kansas City in 1888 and they settled in what's now called the 54th street neighborhood,” Williams says.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams is the executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Missouri. Her family first moved to Kansas City in 1888.
Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3
Dr. Carmaletta Williams is the executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Missouri. Her family first moved to Kansas City in 1888.

Kansas City at the turn of the century looked a lot different than it does today. Most of the city didn’t have sewers. Black and white soldiers were returning from World War I. It was also the height of the Jim Crow era, and Black neighborhoods in Kansas City were segregated.

Segregation as social distancing

Williams' neighborhood, near 53rd Street and Walrond Avenue, was self-sustaining — her grandmother delivered all the babies born in the area and all the kids went to the same schools.

“So if someone had gotten a case of the flu, then they would have been cared for by the people who live there, who lived in that neighborhood,” Williams says.

But as far as Williams knows, not one person in her family – not her great-grandparents or their 15 kids — died from the flu.

Dr. Tai Edwards, a history professor at Johnson County community college and director of the Kansas Studies Institute, says that aligns with research of the early pandemic.

While Black residents were dying at higher rates than the population as a whole, infection rates were actually lower, and Edwards says segregation played a role.

Black families in Kansas City lived, worked and socialized within a few square blocks – reducing the risk of exposure.

“And that might have actually cut off communities from spreading to one another,” Edwards says.

Another thing that might have helped Black Americans was where they were getting their news. Edwards says white newspapers, at the time, were barred from saying anything that might harm the war effort by publishing how terrible things were at home. Black papers weren’t hindered by expectation.

“They subscribed to media that wasn't sugarcoating the situation,” Edwards says.

Black papers, like the Kansas City Sun, often published detailed lists of who had been infected and which families were under quarantine.

A clipping of the Kansas City Sun from Saturday, November 2, 1918, lists the individuals who are ill with the flu.
Library of Congress
State Historical Society of Missouri
A clipping of the Kansas City Sun from Saturday, November 2, 1918, lists the individuals who are ill with the flu.

“And then they were very vigilant about mourning the dead. And this is going on in their newspapers when the white press is doing nothing even close to that,” Edwards says.

Underlying conditions still caused higher death rates

But while infection rates may have been lower among African American communities, death rates were equal to or higher than the rest of the population.

That was often due to poorer health overall – increased exposure to tuberculosis and pneumonia that made it harder to overcome the flu. Doctors today refer to those complications as “underlying conditions.”

Qiana Thomason, President and CEO of The Health Forward Foundation, says focusing on lower infection rates among Blacks misses the point when the death rate was so high.

“And especially since it still bears true today with respect to Black Americans —over-representation in the mortality rate proportional to our population size and that of our white counterparts,” Thomason says.

Thomason says for all the differences between Kansas City in 1918 and 2020, there are still some haunting similarities. Black communities still have less access to health care, education, healthy food, banking and wealth. Plus, they are at higher risk of being killed by police.

This, too, played out in ways all too familiar to Black Kansas Citians.

National Guard during the 1919 Chicago Race Riots.
Jun Fujita
Courtesy of Chicago History Museum, ICHi-65477
National Guard during the 1919 Chicago Race Riots.

Parallels in racial justice protests

The summer of 1919 saw a spike in mob violence, riots and lynchings of Blacks across the country – a retaliation for African Americans migrating from the South and demanding equality.

Edwards says the end of WWI brought change — Black soldiers returned from the war and wanted jobs alongside white workers. Political, economic and race-based anxiety hummed in the background. Toss in a pandemic and that fear and anger can boil over.

“Things were in flux, and they had just faced a massive trauma and rather than sort of having a collective national mourning and perhaps therapeutic reckoning with this turn of events, you just really have anger and anger manifested in violence,” Edwards says.

Thomason says likewise, this pandemic cannot be separated from the racism that surrounds it.

“Racism as a public health crisis that can result in mortality when interacting with law enforcement, as well as mortality with respect to medical racism, and mortality with respect to structural inequities that result in poor health,” Thomason says.

Williams, with the Black Archives, draws a direct line between the violent demonstrations in 1919 and the protests over police brutality today.

“When you have a policeman shoot, shoot a man, Jacob Blake, in his back seven times at point blank range, that's a lynching,” Williams says.

Still, Williams says she’s hopeful this pandemic and the racial uprisings across the country have forced the blinders off many people who until now refused to see anything was wrong.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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