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At Height of the 1918 Pandemic, Schools in NYC and Chicago Stayed Open. Here's Why

August 5, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Amid fierce controversy, public health officials in both cities decided children would be better off in school.

In the fall of 1918, as the deadly , the commissioner blamed his son’s case of influenza on his not being in school, arguing that “children are better off in school, under supervision, than playing about in the streets.”

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

Chicago (and New Haven) Keep Schools Open Too

Like Copeland, Chicago’s health commissioner, John Dill Robertson, made the controversial decision to keep schools open during the worst of the 1918-19 flu pandemic. The city already had a strong medical inspection program in schools by that time, and Robertson and other health officials believed that children would be better off in school than at home, or on the streets, with relatively limited supervision

Despite this belief, many parents in Chicago opted to keep their children home anyway: Stern and her co-authors reported that absentee rates went from 30 percent in early to mid-October 1918 to nearly 50 percent late that month. Robertson later suggested parents were keeping children home because of what he called “fluphobia.”

In addition to New York and Chicago, officials in New Haven, Connecticut also kept schools open during the pandemic, and saw similarly high rates of absenteeism—among teachers as well as students. In all three cities, the role of medical inspections and school nurses proved crucial in enabling schools to stay open, and proved to many the value of the reforms instituted in previous decades.

Compared to other major cities in the Northeast, like Boston and Philadelphia, New York weathered the influenza pandemic reasonably well, and many credited Copeland with limiting the damage and keeping people (relatively) calm.

In 1922, Copeland ran successfully for the U.S. Senate; a young Franklin D. Roosevelt served as the honorary chairman of his campaign. Copeland would serve three terms as a senator until his death in 1938, and gained enduring fame for his successful efforts to install air conditioning in the Senate Chamber.

See all pandemic coverage here

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Black Americans Who Served in WWII Faced Segregation and Second-Class Roles

August 5, 2020 in History

By Alexis Clark

Some 1.2 million Black men served in the U.S. military during the war, but they were often treated as second-class citizens.

When the Selective Training and Service Act became the nation’s first peacetime draft law in September 1940, civil rights leaders pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow Black men the opportunity to register and serve in integrated regiments.

Although African Americans had participated in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, they had done so segregated, and FDR appointee Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, was not interested in changing the status quo. With a need to shore up the U.S. Armed Forces as war intensified in Europe, FDR decided that Black men could register for the draft, but they would remain segregated and the military would determine the proportion of Blacks inducted into the service.

The compromise represented the paradoxical experience that befell the 1.2 million African American men who served in World War II: They fought for democracy overseas while being treated like second-class citizens by their own country.

WATCH: ‘The Story of Us: World War II‘ on HISTORY Vault

Discrimination in the Military

A group of Black men enlisting in the United States Army Air Corps in March 1941. They were assigned to the 99th Pursuit Squadron in Illinois; this was the first time the Army Air Corps opened its enlistment to African Americans.

Despite African American soldiers’ eagerness to fight in World War II, the same Jim Crow discrimination in society was practiced in every branch of the armed forces. Many of the bases and training facilities were located in the South, in addition to the largest military installation for Black soldiers, Fort Huachuca, located in Arizona. Regardless of the region, at all the bases there were separate blood banks, hospitals or wards, medical staff, barracks and recreational facilities for Black soldiers. And white soldiers and local white residents routinely slurred and harassed them.

“The experience was very dispiriting for a lot of Black soldiers,” says Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College and author of Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African American Newspapers. “The kind of treatment they received by white officers in army bases in the United States was horrendous. They described being in slave-like conditions and being treated like animals. They were called racial epithets quite regularly and just not afforded respect either as soldiers or human …read more


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The Contentious 1896 Election That Started the Rural-Urban Voter Divide

August 5, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

William Jennings Bryan’s campaign rhetoric to end government favoritism toward business at the expense of farmers and the working class resonated for generations to come.

As the presidential election year of 1896 began, things were looking rosy for the Republicans. But the emergence of a brash, young politician, William Jennings Bryan, soon turned the tide. Bryan’s campaign laid bare the diverging interests of those whose livelihoods were linked to urban institutions and those who lived by the land in rural America.

With the nation mired in the aftermath of a serious economic depression and a deeply unpopular Democrat incumbent—Grover Cleveland—in the White House, the GOP had surged back in the most recent midterms to win control of both the House and Senate. Governor William McKinley of Ohio easily won the Republican presidential nomination, and seemed poised for a smooth ride to the White House on his platform of economic protectionism and support for the gold standard, which defined the value of the nation’s currency in terms of how much gold it had in reserve.

But in an unexpected turn of events, the young Democratic Nebraska lawyer and former congressman Bryan challenged McKinley in 1896. Bryan’s appeal to America’s farmers and the working class, his passionate support of the free silver movement and his powerful speaking style galvanized both disaffected Democrats and members of the People’s (or Populist) Party, turning the election into one of the most hard-fought and consequential in the nation’s history.

READ MORE: Populism in the United States: A Timeline

Backdrop: Panic of 1893

The battle between McKinley and Bryan took place during an economic downturn that had begun in 1893, when two of the nation’s biggest employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, collapsed, setting off a stock market panic. Thousands of businesses closed, and the nation suffered more than 10 percent unemployment for more than five straight years.

While President Cleveland favored the gold standard, many in the Populist Party and the rural, agrarian wing of the Democratic Party—including many farmers in the South and West—supported the Free Silver Movement. Rather than rely on gold to back the nation’s money supply, they believed the country should use silver, which was much more abundant at the time. This would inflate the currency, increasing the prices farmers would receive for their crops and helping them pay …read more