In 1918 Pandemic, Black Richmond Faced New Virus and Old Racism
On October 12, 1918, Maggie Walker was interrupted from her work with a call from the governor.
Walker had a full plate. She was the first African American woman to charter a bank, and a leader in Richmond’s Black community.
Governor Westmoreland Davis needed Walker’s help. The influenza pandemic was ravaging Richmond, with the Richmond Times-Dispatch reporting 549 deaths by the end of that month.
“By the first week or two in October, it's raging through and sometimes taking out entire families,” said Ajena Rogers, supervisory park ranger at the Maggie Walker National Historic Site.
Many people suffered alone. One lurid account in the Times-Dispatch described an African American woman so sick from the flu that she wasn’t able to get help from her home in an alley behind Grove Avenue. By the time she was found by neighbors, her infant was dead, its body disfigured by rodents.
Existing hospitals were overwhelmed. White medical staff sequestered Black patients to the basement of the John Marshall school, which had been commandeered into an emergency hospital.
Would Walker come to the hospital to see the conditions for herself, Davis asked?
Rogers imagines the scene that must have confronted Walker in that basement the following day: a windowless room filled with suffering of Black patients, side-by-side with the hospital’s cafeteria.
Walker sprung into action. Within two days, she coordinated the opening of an emergency hospital for Black patients at the Baker School. The school had served Black students since 1871 in what was later described as a “antiquated fire trap.”
Still, the Black nurses and doctors who volunteered at the school made the best of the situation.
“Hospital giving good service,” Walker wrote on October 17. Then, the next day: “Hospital a complement to our doctors & nurses.”
Segregated facilities were nothing new for Richmond’s African American community, whose health outcomes were intertwined with pervasive racism.
Dr. Vanessa Gamble, a professor of medical humanities at George Washington University, said that it is impossible to talk about medicine of that era in isolation.
“You have the rise of Jim Crow, you the rise of the Klan, you have disenfranchisement,” Gamble said.
The policies had tangible health outcomes. In her paper on the 1918 pandemic’s effects on African Americans, Gamble cites sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’s analysis of the 1900 census. It found that African American death rates were two to three times higher than for white people for several diseases, including tuberculosis and pneumonia.
“There was a time in this country, if your skin was Black, you could not be admitted to a hospital, even if you were bleeding and in active labor,” Gamble said.
And so when it came to the pandemic, the country’s African American community “was left on its own,” Gamble said.
By the time the pandemic made its force felt, a growing group of Black doctors and medical professionals had emerged in Richmond’s Jackson Ward.
Dr. Sarah Jones -- the first Black woman to pass Virginia’s Boards -- opened the city’s first Black hospital in 1903 alongside her husband, Miles Jones. By 1907, Richmond had at least 14 African American physicians .
Many trained at Howard University or farther north before returning to Richmond, and were members of the Richmond Medical Association, the local chapter of the National Medical Association, and the NAACP.
The leader of the Baker emergency hospital was Dr. William Henry Hughes, a surgeon who also served as Maggie Walker’s personal doctor. In 1915, Hughes quit his gubernatorial appointment to go abroad, making the rounds at some of Europe’s most prestigious medical centers, including London’s Bartholomew's Hospital and Paris’s Pasteur Institute, before returning to Richmond to start his own practice.
He worked alongside another pioneer: Dr. Bessie Tharps. She was the second African American to graduate medical school at Boston University, with a postdoctoral stint at Harvard, and was friends with Maggie Walker.
For Cecile Keith Brown, Dr. Tharps was like a grandmother, although technically Tharps was her great-aunt. The way Brown tells it, Tharps loved poetry and lit up rooms with her charisma. She was a member of the NAACP, a suffragette, and regular churchgoer.
“For her to take on that leadership role during that pandemic is totally typical,” Brown said.
At the emergency hospital, Tharps and the rest of the staff served over 100 patients. Ben Anderson, a park guide at the Maggie Walker National Historic Site, has tracked down death certificates for 92 African Americans who died of influenza that October; ten of them passed at the Baker’s school.
State statistics cited by the Roanoke Times showed nearly 6,000 Virginians died of influenza in October 1918, including over 1,800 African Americans (numbers roughly proportional to their size of the state’s population).
The Baker hospital was widely praised, though the white establishment took charactistically segregationist morals from the episode. A Times-Dispatch reporter praised the fact that the hospital included few "northern importations." Governor Davis took a similar tone.
"It is an excellent thing to have our colored people so well able to work out their own problems independent of white help and without any mixing of activity," Davis told the paper. "It shows that they are progressing and that they will become helpful workers in the future of the state."
The black doctors and nurses at the hospital appeared to have a different understanding of what they'd accomplished.
“We have had no opportunity before to do for our own people what we have been able to do here,” one unnamed staff told the Times-Dispatch. “It is a service from which we will reap benefits for years to come, for our own people here in the South have never had the confidence in us in the past that they will have in the future since with funds and equipment furnished us.”
Such sentiments were common across the country, Gamble said, with Black doctors sometimes treating white patients given that white doctors were often abroad serving in World War I.
“They thought that there would be more benefits and more opportunities or even that their efforts would be acknowledged, and none of that really happened,” Gamble said.
Still, many of the hospital staff left rich legacies.
After the pandemic, Dr. Bessie Tharps delivered hundreds of babies and set up a volunteer children’s clinic. Brown remembered going with her “Aunt Bessie” to First African Baptist Church in Richmond’s Northside.
“People would come up to you and say, ‘Dr. Bessie took care of me when I was bla bla bla bla bla, and she was so wonderful and she took care of me when nobody else would,’” Brown said.
Still, Tharps struggled to find work in a segregated, patriarchal Richmond. She started her own practice, and later moved to Rhode Island, where she was able to treat white patients, although Tharps eventually returned.
“There was never bitterness or anger exuded,” Brown said. “It was just sort of, this is what this is how we have to do it. So this is how we have to be.”
Tharps gave a speech in 1927 honoring the fruits of her friend Maggie Walker’s work, expressing the pride Walker must feel seeing “her dark sisters sitting like women of other races in finely equipped offices, with working hours like other fine women, and a pay envelope which none need be ashamed.”
Brown’s mother, Rachel B. Keith , was also a pioneering doctor who worked alongside Tharps in Rhode Island.
W.H. Hughes’ family later converted his home in Jackson Ward (designed by the city’s first Black architect, Charles Thaddeus Russell) into Virginia’s only school for blind African Americans.
Another physician who worked during the pandemic, Dr. Oswald Barrington Herndon Bowser, was a volunteer in the medical reserve corps, NAACP member, and son of Rosa Dixon Bowser -- a leading education figure in her day. Dr. Bowser’s son, Dr. Barrington H. Bowser, later took up his father's old practice at the family’s home in Jackson-Ward; Barrington’s son, Barry, is also a retired Richmond physician.
New Example of an Old Problem
Despite Black doctors' success, the white medical establishment resisted integration. The Medical School of Virginia -- what is now part of Virginia Commonwealth University -- didn’t admit its first Black students until 1951 , and didn’t formally desegregate its hospital until 1965.
Health disparities persist today. There’s around a 20-year difference in life expectancies between Richmond’s mostly-Black Gilpin Court and mostly-white Westover Hills, according to researchers at VCU.
Those disparities are playing out in the current pandemic; African Americans account for 16 of 18 COVID-19 deaths in Richmond as of Monday.
Steven Woolf, a professor at VCU who focuses on health equity, calls the pandemic “a new example of an old problem.”
Woolf wants to start addressing the situation by boosting protections of vulnerable workers on the front lines, increasing access to health care, adding rent protections, and passing paid sick leave. He contends that the health of marginalized populations aren’t being prioritized by executives and policymakers.
“I callously wonder whether some CEOs aren’t thinking about that or not too worried about that, because we’re living at a time where people are starving for jobs,” Woolf said.
The Commonwealth Institute think tank estimates about a third of Virginia’s frontline workers in this pandemic are Black. Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam is set to partially reopen businesses on Friday amid lagging testing, a move Woolf calls “a big gamble.”
It’s unnerving, Woolf said, to watch the state and country hurtle towards reopening with relatively few protections in place.
“We’ll be back here again if we don’t deal with the root causes,” he said.