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What Happens When You Reopen Too Fast? Lessons From the 1918 Flu Pandemic

group of women in white scrubs standing n front of building
After learning that black patients suffering from the 1918 flu were being treated in the segregated basement of an emergency hospital, Maggie L. Walker, a banker and civic leader, successfully lobbied Governor Westmoreland Davis to convert the Baker School for the care of black patients. This facility was staffed by black doctors and nurses, such as these women photographed in front of St. Luke Hall, headquarters of the Independent Order of St. Luke, the fraternal organization Walker led. (Photo: Courtesy of the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)

Governors nationwide are considering how to reopen their states even as the coronavirus crisis continues to grow. This impulse has a precedent: it’s what many towns did during the flu pandemic of 1918 — a global health crisis that killed more than 50 million people worldwide, and more Americans than all 20th- and 21st-century wars combined.

In this special report, Ed Ayers, host of the VPM series “The Future of America’s Past,” offers a snapshot view of Richmond’s experience with the 1918 flu:

  • a 24 year-old soldier, a budding playwright who supported women's suffrage, dies just days after getting a promotion;
  • an African American leader demands that the governor provide resources to care for black patients, who were being treated in a windowless basement;
  • and a city health official who wavered over when to re-open the city, and, under pressure, did so too soon.

Listen here, and watch a video version of the story at

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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