Friday, May 8, 2020

Anti-vaxxers. Boosterism beating science. Sound familiar?

Charlotte's first zoning map from 1947 shows development patterns that continue today almost 75 years later. Hanchett's book, with a new preface, describes how government actions like zoning shaped today's racial and economic segregation. Today's wealthiest area of south and southeast Charlotte appears here in green at the lower right corner, because the map is not oriented north-south.
“Today’s decisions, consciously or unconsciously, rest on the platform of the past.” 
–– Tom Hanchett, Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975, second edition

People who find history boring and irrelevant must have scars from repeatedly touching hot stoves. The past has lessons, if we’ll listen. This is about a couple of century-old events in my city, Charlotte.

My original plan here was to write about the second edition of historian Tom Hanchett’s Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. It’s a stunning book, one I regularly recommend when people ask what to read to learn about Charlotte. When I first read it in 1998, it was like having a light flick on in a darkened room; you see things you previously sensed only in shadowy outlines.

The meticulously researched look into how Charlotte’s neighborhoods went from racially diverse after the Civil War to strictly segregated told a story new to many of us – not the fact of segregation but how it happened across decades. He described how government – local, state and federal – was a key actor in creating and enforcing racial segregation. (To learn more about government’s role in U.S. housing segregation, see Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.)

Hanchett, the retired historian for the Levine Museum of the New South, today is historian-in-residence at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. His powerful new preface brings his work up to date and makes the point that since current inequities of wealth, well-being and education resulted from deliberate government action, then government action can help reverse them.

But … pandemic. Most Americans are now stuck at home, trying to stay 6 feet from anyone outside, many having lost jobs. We’re all viewing the world through a coronavirus lens and living through a history-making pandemic, the most serious since the 1918-19 flu, estimated to have killed at least 40 million people globally.

These days some politicians urge reopening stores and businesses, and not a few Americans agree, saying the cost to the
economy is so cruel it counterbalances the obvious cost in suffering and death. Many states are re-opening, some more speedily and others, like North Carolina, more gradually.

So here is history caution No. 1: A remarkable Charlotte Observer article in April – “The Big Lie: 102 years ago Charlotte leaders downplayed devastation of Spanish flu” – offered a powerful look at government deceit, medical advice ignored, and the resulting death toll. Reporter Mark Washburn studied death certificates, obituary reports and local newspapers. He found that Charlotte Mayor Frank McNinch and Mecklenburg County health director Dr. C.C. Hudson brazenly misled the public about the flu’s deadly impact, under-reporting deaths by at least half. “At the height of the epidemic, when citizens were dying at the rate of more than 10 a week,” he wrote, “they under-reported the scope of the crisis by two-thirds.”

After a one-month quarantine in October 1918, as flu cases receded, the city, pressured by businesses and churches and hearing an inaccurately low total of fatalities, lifted its quarantine against the advice of the medical society. “And influenza roared back into the community,” Washburn wrote, “killing hundreds more.”

Why did they do it? Washburn has no definitive answer, but recounts how the city and county later bragged for decades of escaping the worst of the flu. Was it boosterism? Civic braggadocio? Or a way to keep businesses open, despite the deaths it caused?

Read Washburn’s full story. A complacent press took the mayor’s and doctor’s accounts as truth. Politicians cared more about commerce than people dying. Apply these lessons as you will to today’s situation.

History caution No. 2 comes straight from Hanchett’s book. It shows what happens when a marginalized community distrusts and resists health advice from the establishment.

The time was the 1890s and early 1900s. Southern agriculture hit hard times, and Charlotte’s textile mills lured thousands of workers and families from the farms. The era saw sometimes violent labor protests, a piece of the city’s past that today is all but ignored – a topic for another day. Hanchett tallies walkouts: 45 workers at the Louise Mill in 1897, 100 at Charlotte Clothing Co. and 150 at Highland Park Mill in 1900.

The mill workers lived in company-owned villages lacking city water and sewers and endured 60-hour work weeks and child labor. Wealthier Charlotteans saw how diseases spread easily in the crowded, unsanitary mill villages and among workers with “a pallor peculiar to the cotton mill.”

In the early 1900s, work at N.C. textile mills was harsh, with 60-hour work weeks and, often, child labor. In November 1908 photographer Lewis Hine visited Gastonia's Loray Mill to depict typical scenes like this. His notes say, "Girls running warping machines in Loray mill, Gastonia, N.C. Many boys and girls much younger. Boss carefully avoided them, and when I tried to get a photo which would include a mite of a boy working at a machine, he was quickly swept out of range. 'He isn't working here, just came in to help a little.' " Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, [reproduction number, LC-DIG-nclc-01342]. See more of Hine's photos at the Library of Congress.

Prosperous residents showed open disdain for millhands and their families, Hanchett writes. “They talked of “textile ‘trash’ and ‘the ignorant factory set.’ ” He quotes one Charlottean: “Mill operatives are responsible themselves themselves for the disgrace that seems to rest upon them.”

The owner of Charlotte Clothing Co. triggered a walkout when he used profane language in the presence of female employees. Workers objected, but the owner responded, “There are no ladies working here.”

Into this climate in 1900 arose fears of a smallpox outbreak. After a few reports of smallpox among black visitors to Charlotte, Hanchett writes, officials began a vaccination campaign. Such vaccinations were relatively new and involved scratching the arm to give a mild form of the disease, which could create flulike symptoms for a few days.

The campaign started with public schools. But when the vaccination team moved into the mill villages they met resistance. Some workers were afraid of the vaccination, saying they had been sick. (Taking time off for illness would likely cut into their pay). Some of those early-day anti-vaxxers were even jailed, including a woman and her 4-year-old boy.

The next day doctors went to the Gingham Mill with the police chief and a squad of officers. Seeing them coming, workers scrambled out doors and windows and would not return until the medical officials left.

Distrust. Misinformation leading to flawed government decisions. Resistance to health advice among people who felt scorned by the powers-that-be. Hmmm.

As Mark Twain is reported to have said, history does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.

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Park Road Books at Park Road Shopping Center is taking orders and delivering curbside. See the website for hours and details. For now, the store is closed Saturdays and Sundays.

WANT TO DISCUSS HANCHETT’S BOOK? Here’s a discussion guide