Chicago’s Packinghouses: The Assembly Line Jungle

Packinghouse workers in the early 1900s endured hot, loud and dangerous conditions. Irregular working days swung wildly depending upon live animal shipments and production needs. On Mondays and Tuesdays, when cattle shipments typically arrived, sometimes working days stretched from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. or midnight. Summers were a lull period where layoffs were many. Wages were low for the unskilled and injury rates ran high—the Armour plant averaged 23 accidents per day in 1917.

It was a buyers’ market. Packinghouses opened each morning to 200 – 1,000 willing workers waiting for jobs. Foremen or yards policemen went out to the gate and choose the number of workers needed that day from the strongest in the crowd. Only about 10 men in a gang of 200 were “steady time” men, guaranteed a full 6 days of pay. Many others were hired as “casual” workers, meaning that a worker might only be asked to stay the day or only a couple of hours as needed, for as low as 15 cents an hour.

(Pictured Below: Swift Beef Department Dropping Hides and Splitting Chucks 1906: Library of Congress)


The Birth of the Assembly Line

Although Henry Ford is credited with creating the assembly line in the manufacture of his Model Ts, the hog slaughterhouses of Cincinnati were the first to utilize an assembly line process as early as the 1830s.

To help speed the time-intensive slaughtering and cutting processes, the packinghouses used extreme division of labor, where each man might perform a single cut or task. Because of the odd shapes, and differing size, weight and quality of the animals, many aspects did not lend themselves to mechanization. So instead of mechanizing the process of dismantling the animals, packinghouses mechanized how the carcasses were moved from station to station. Slaughtered animals were raised with hoists, and moved along overhead rails and along conveyors. Men no longer brought the hogs and cattle to each station—the work came to them.

The all-around butcher, who had been in use as late as the 1880s, was now replaced by a killing gang of 157 men. The jobs were divided into 78 different “trades.” Each man performed his individualized task 1,000 times a day.

The time-savings were enormous. The slaughtering and hanging process that had taken 3-4 men up to 15 minutes per animal, now could be done by one “shackler” who could hoist 70 cattle carcasses each minute by clipping the shackle around the hind foot and letting steam power raise the animals up.

“Looking down this room, one saw . . . a line of dangling hogs a hundred yards in length; and for every yard there was a man, working as if a demon were after him.” The Jungle

At the Mercy of the Foreman

Packinghouses ran on low margins. The cost of the animals (the raw materials) made up 89 cents on the dollar, leaving little room for profit. Because the work could not be mechanized, the only option was to increase output. In other words, to make the men and women work faster.

armour-hog-scraping-rail-1909In 1908, the endless chain in hog slaughtering was seen as a major breakthrough. It prevented the slowest worker from regulating the speed of the entire gang.

Now, the foremen on the killing floors controlled the speed of the conveyor line with a lever—men who were incentivized to process the highest number of animals at the lowest cost or lose their own jobs. Even small changes in speed could increase outcomes and profits. The pace of the work drew the most complaints from workers.

(Pictured: Armour Hog Scraping Rail 1909: Library of Congress)

The packinghouses worked to break unions and encourage constant competition. The companies established rivalries between houses within the firm and among foremen within the same house. Companies exchanged data on line speed and other factors. The fastest men were given higher paying jobs as “pacers” and were placed at critical points in the production flow, setting the pace for rest of the line. Less skilled “go betweens” were trained to fill the job above them, so positions could be filled when a skilled worker was absent for a day, and the threat of being replaced on a permanent basis kept skilled workers diligent.

“If you need to turn out a little more, you speed up the conveyors a little and the men speed up to keep pace.”A Packinghouse Superintendent

Because of the great number of immigrants and black migrants looking for work, packinghouses also had the power to break strikes. It was the strike of 1904 that brought a new group of blacks up to Chicago.

The Largest Employer of Black Workers in Chicago

Blacks’ reputation as “scabs” began with the strike of 1894 and repeated itself in 1904. During this second strike, labor agents recruited an estimated 10,000 black workers. Special trains carried black workers from Southern states and dropped them into the stockyards and alongside the packinghouses. In a single day, 1,400 arrived. As well, packinghouses brought trainloads of immigrants from Ellis Island and moved skilled workers from small rural plants.


As a whole, the blacks distrusted unions and lay their loyalties with the packinghouses themselves, though some blacks did join forces with their white co-workers in solidarity with unions. Employers went to great lengths to nurture a direct relationship with black workers through donations to black churches, Y.M.C.A.’s and the formation of black baseball teams. Though this courting did not include high wages (blacks held some of the lowest and lowest paid positions), the money was still better than many blacks could earn in their home states, especially if they were employed in agriculture as sharecroppers.

As WWI raged, the combination of plummeting immigration, white soldiers traveling overseas to fight, and the need for increased production to feed and defend U.S. and Allied soldiers, gave Southern blacks an opportunity at new and well-paying industrial jobs. Thousands traveled north to Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Evansville, Indiana.

dto1-family-driven-by-mob_t Between 1915 and 1920, roughly a half-million blacks migrated to northern cities. The Great Migration saw Chicago’s black population burgeon. In 1890, blacks made up less than 2% of the city’s population. During WWI, the black population rose to over 100,000.

The Department of Labor figures show that the number of black packinghouse workers in Chicago jumped three to five times from 1917-1918. For example, one major Chicago packing house only had 311 black workers in January of 1916, but employed 3,621 by the end of 1918.

By 1920, the Meat Trust was the largest employer of blacks, holding more than one-half of all of manufacturing jobs in Chicago’s Black Belt. The next largest employer was the steel mills, with less than one-quarter of black jobs.

In total, Chicago would gain more than 500,000 of the approximately 7 million southern blacks during the entirety of the Great Migration. By 1970, blacks would represent 33% of Chicago’s population—one-third of the city’s people.

Great Diversity

Chicago’s Union Stockyards and the surrounding slaughtering and meat-packing plants offered unparalleled diversity. More than 40 nationalities were represented, with diversity in age, gender and work experience.


The early immigrants to the trade included the Irish and German. They maintained the highest paying “knife jobs”. This was followed by Bohemians, (coming from the industrialized region of what is now Czechoslovakia), and later Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, African Americans and Mexicans.

Although they worked side by side within the packinghouses, ethnic groups rarely mixed outside of the walls of their employers, each group staying within its own ethnic neighborhoods within Chicago. This lead to great overcrowding in Chicago’s Black Belt and was one of the factors contributing to Chicago’s Race Riots of 1919.


Chicago and the Great Migration, 1915-1950; Hana Layson with Kenneth Warren; The Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom;

Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904-54; Rick Halpern; University of Illinois Press; 1997

Great Migration; Encyclopedia of Chicago;

The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class & Gender; Edited by Joe William Trotter, Jr.; Indiana University Press; 1991

The Jungle; Upton Sinclair; Barnes & Noble Classics; 2003 (first published in 1906)

Prelude to a Riot—Irish Athletic Clubs and the Black Belt in 1919; American History USA;

Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers 1894-1922; James R. Barrett; University of Illinois Press; 1990

“World War I and The Great Migration”; History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, Washington D.C., U.S.; Government Printing Office, 2008.





Chicago’s Black Soldiers in WWI: The 8th Regiment/The 370th Infantry

Black Infantry Soliders Marching Verdun

Black Infantry Soliders Marching Verdun

When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, blacks newspapers and leaders encouraged blacks to join the war. The Crisis stated that “while this war lasts, forget about our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens.”

And young black men responded. The overwhelming feeling among the black soldiers was that if they fought for the principles of democracy overseas, that it wold translate to equality for them back home–equal rights, equal treatment and opportunities equal to whites.

The could not know how wrong they would be.

How Many Blacks Served in the Great War

Upwards of 400,000 blacks serves–a combination of volunteers, regular Army units and the National Guard. Of that number, 340,000 were drafted. But only 200,000 served in France. Many remained stationed at camps throughoutthe United Stated providing manual labor. And of those sent overseas, only 42,000 served as combat troops.


The Harlem Hellfighters – 369th Regiment

Undoubtedly, the most famous of the black fighting troops were the “Harlem Hellfighters” of New York. Yet another regiment fought just as fiercely: The 370th Infantry of Chicago.


The 8th Regiment of Illinois/The 370th Infantry

The Germans called them the “Black Devils”, especially because of the black troops’ ferocious fighting at St. Mihiel, the Argonne Forest and the Meuse. Embedded within the French troops, they earned the name “Partridges” from the French because of their proud military bearing.

The 370th Regiment

The 370th Regiment

The 8th of Illinois was the only regiment in the entire United States Army that was commanded almost wholly by black officers—from Colonel Franklin A. Denison to Lt. Colonel James H. Johnson, to three Majors and a Captain. (Torchbearers page 214).

Though the soldiers’ accomplishments were many, from the beginning they had challenges. The first blow came when Colonel Charles Young, their commander, the highest ranking black officer in the United States Regular Army and a graduate of West Point, was found not physically fit to serve and was retired from active duty, despite his fervent protests. His troops and the black newspapers were angered by this decision, feeling that Young had been unjustly denied active duty in the Great War and denied promotion to Brigadier-General (which he would have automatically received upon being called to active duty) simply because he was black.

The second blow came when the decision was reached to have black combat troops serve with the French army, as Pershing did not wish them to serve under him. Pershing even went so far as to send a letter to the commanders of the French troops warning them not to ruin the negro troops.

Black Soldiers at Rifle Training Behind the French Lines

Black Soldiers
at Rifle Training Behind the French Lines

Despite having to retrain with French equipment, including rifles, the 8th fought gallantly.

For their service, The United Stated awarded 21 of the regiments’ heroes with the Distinguished Service Cross. The French government’s honors extended even further. They awarded 68 soldiers with the Croix de Guerre.

Upon return to Chicago, the 8th Regiment received a hero’s welcome with a parade attended by thousands. But the pride and acknowledgement by the other communities in Chicago was short-lived.


By July of 1919, Chicago would see one of the most violent Race Riots in the nation’s history. But, in Chicago, as in Washington D.c., there was a difference. The blacks, including soldiers of the 8th Regiment, fought back.


The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I; Arthur E. Barbeau & Florette Henri; Da Capo Press 1996 (Originally published by Temple University Press in 1974)

Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era; Chad L. Williams; University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill; 2010

1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African American Fought Back; David F. Krugler, Cambridge University Press; 2015



America’s Suffrage Movement

Fighting for a Woman’s Right to Vote:

The History of the 19th Amendment

1918 Low Res Nat Women's Party Demonstation Wh House c Everett Hist shutterstock_242816689

The woman suffrage movement in America began before the Civil War. Little did they know how long and bitter and brutal the fight would be. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was not nationally ratified until August 26, 1920. It had taken 72 years.

The Beginnings

Parade 6-9-1914 Wash DC c Everette Historical shutterstock_242817016

The Suffrage movement in the U.S. began in 1848 as an offshoot of the anti- slavery movement. It solidified as its own separate movement after the 15th Amendment extended the vote to African-American men, but not to any women. In 1869, two suffrage organizations were founded: The National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. The two groups had varying views on how to achieve the right to vote, but finally joined forces in 1887 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

In the 1870s, the first attempt at a proposed Amendment (then the 16th Amendment) failed to pass and appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court fell on deaf ears. The national suffrage leaders knew they had to do more. Their response was to initiate a grassroots campaign in each state to obtain state suffrage amendments. The thinking was that if enough congressmen began to support women’s rights on a state level, a federal suffrage amendment, approved by Congress, would soon follow.

By 1890, the leaders of NAWSA realized that to be successful they would need to “bring in the South.” This was a troublesome proposition. Many white southern men viewed the anti-slavery movement and women’s movement with the same contempt. Men, and even some southern women, felt women should stay in their traditional roles as “southern ladies,” allowing men to rule wisely on their behalf. This would be a battle they would continue into the next century.

The Voices of Women for Women

The most vocal and well-known activists of the early efforts were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Susan B Anthony 1880 c Evereatt Historical shutterstock_239402281

Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820 into a Quaker family with long activist traditions. In her lifetime, Anthony worked as an abolitionist, educational reformer, labor activist, temperance worker and suffragist. Her work in the temperance movement taught her that women needed to vote in order to be heard by politicians and to influence public policy. She met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851 and attended her first women’s rights convention in Syracuse in 1852.

The two women joined forces. They believed the Republican party would reward them for their help in garnering support for the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. But they were wrong.

Anthony campaigned through the 1860s and 1870s. In Rochester in 1872, she was arrested for a crime. She had dared to vote. In 1877, Congress laughed at the 10,000 signatures she had gathered on petitions. In 1900, at the age of 80, she retired as President of NAWSA and in 1904 presided over the International Council of Women in Berlin. She went before every congress from 1869 to 1906 to ask for passage of the suffrage amendment. Anthony died in 1906, 14 years before the 19th Amendment passed–the amendment also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

1890 Elizabeth Cady Stanton c Everett Historical shutterstock_242816692

Elizabeth Cady Stanton served as president of the National Suffrage Association and as the first president of NAWSA. After serving 20 years for the cause, she resigned in 1892 at the age of 77. In her resignation speech, “The Solitude of Self,” Stanton stated that as an individual human, a  citizen and a partner to man, a woman deserves the “solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life. …Nothing strengthens the judgement and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded… .”

Nothings adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty…   Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In the south, Nellie Nugent Somerville and Belle Kearney joined the struggle to convince fellow southerners that a federal amendment allowing women to vote was not a threat to the south.

In the north, some suffragists questioned why illiterate and immigrant men could vote while intelligent, literate women could not.

1914 Low Res Mrs. Suffren banner in parade c Everett Histo shutterstock_242816998

In 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt became head of the National Woman Suffrage Association. She developed a two-prong political strategy called the “Winning Plan” that went after both state laws and ratification  of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Alice Paul took a more confrontational approach. In 1913, she organized a protest of 5,000 women to march up Pennsylvania Avenue on the day of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration–the first time it had ever been done. (Pictured below, is Inez Miholland in the parade of March 3, 1913.)

1913 March 3 parade Inez Milholland c Everett Hist shutterstock_242817022

Two years later some 40,000 men and women marched in a suffrage parade in New York–the largest parade ever held in the city. And in 1917, Alice Paul and her supporters picketed the White House, six days a week, day and night, through sun, rain or snow. They carried signs that read:”How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty” and “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage.” Some chained themselves to the White House fence.

Political Tennis Ball

Suffrage states c Norman B Leventhan Map Center Boston Public Library 06_01_008662-A

By the early 20th century, efforts to convince individual states to grant voting rights to women had achieved some success. Women already had full voting rights in 15 states–most of them west of the Mississippi. Wyoming, a territory where men outnumbered women 6-to-1, passed a woman’s voting bill as early as 1869 in the hopes that it might attract single women to balance out the gender difference, while driving the population to the threshold needed for statehood. Plus, the Republican governor needed to support women’s rights in the same way his party had supported African-American voting rights.

1920 Low Res Republican Conven Chicago Banner cEverette Historical shutterstock_242816980

Unfortunately, this was not a national trend. Many states, particularly those in the south, opposed the passing of the 19th amendment on many grounds. Some southern politicians were still in opposition to the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which, respectively, provided voting rights and civil protections to African-American men. Ratifying the 19th Amendment, they argued, would suggest that they approved of these earlier amendments, (which they were required to pass before being allowed back into the Union), and thus supported interference in state’s rights. Plus, women weren’t intellectually qualified to vote anyway.

State-by-state passage also had opposition within the suffrage movement itself. Some believed that “no” votes at the state level diluted national support of the amendment.

President Woodrow Wilson held off his public support of the amendment until the result seemed inevitable.

A Long, Treacherous Path

1918 Low Res Oct Police seize banners Senate Office c Everett shutterstock_242817049

Women endured terrible hardships in the name of equality. Susan B. Anthony was struck down in the street. Alice Paul’s picketers were physically attacked. In 1917, almost 170 picketers were arrested on the charge of obstructing traffic and sentenced to up to 6 months in a cold, damp jail.


Over 30 of those prisoners went on hunger strikes and were force fed through tubes. In 1918, an appeals court struck down the convictions.

Abby Scott Baker Prison Special 2-3-1919 c Everett shutterstock_242816974Many of the prisoners went on a “Prison Special” tour in February and March of 1919, where they went across the country in their prison garb speaking on their mistreatment in prison.

Pictured right is Abby Scott Baker. Pictured below is a photo of suffragists Catherine Flanagan (left) and Madeleine Watson (right) of the militant National Woman’s Party being arrested as they picket outside the White House.

Arrest of Catherin Flanagan and Madeleine Watson at White House c Everett shutterstock_242829016

Victory at Last

It would be 72 years before the first rumblings of voting rights for women would finally result in the 19th Amendment’s ratification, when the state of Tennessee became the 36th and final state to ratify.

1917 Suffragists voting NYC c Everett shutterstock_242816731

The first time all women in America could voice their voting power was the Presidential election of 1920. Even so, two states did not allow women to vote in the fall election. One of the states was Mississippi. In fact, Mississippi did not officially ratify the 19th Amendment until March 22, 1984.



“The State Where Women Voted Long Before the 19th Amendment”; Christopher Klein; August 26, 2015;

“Suffragist”; National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House;

Mississippi Women and the Woman Suffrage Amendment; Marjorie Julian Spruill and Jesse Spruill Wheeler; Mississippi History Now: An Online Publication of the Mississippi Historical Society; mshistory

“The Solitude of Self”: Stanton Appeals for Women’s Rights; History Matters; history

“August 20, 1920 – Women’s Suffrage Victory – 19th Amendment Becomes Law”; Jone Johnson Lewis;

“The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage: New Arguments and New Constituencies: 1880-1920”; digital


Everett Historical

Map reproduction from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library (posted on

The Great Influenza

The Deadliest Pandemic in History

The Great Pandemic of 1918-1919 was the deadliest pandemic in the history of the world, killing more in one year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages in a century. It infected about one-third of the planet’s population. Original estimates during the 1920s put the death toll at 21.5 million. More recent estimates put the global mortality figure considerably higher—between 30 and 50 million, or even as high as 100,000 million. An estimated 675,000 were Americans. More Americans died from the Flu than perished in WWI.

flupandemic secret camp

The Spanish flu was 25 times more deadly than the ordinary flu. There are stories of men coming home sick from work and being dead by morning. Some collapsed where they stood. Many of the infected succumbed within 24 to 48 hours after becoming symptomatic.

But even more frightening was who got sick. Although most flus kill the very young and old, this strain killed healthy men and women in the age group of 20- to 40-years-old in alarming rates. Roughly half of those who died were in their twenties and thirties—the prime of the lives.

Death Was Swift and Horrific

Most infected people had a high fever of 100 – 104 F that lasted a few days. The onset was sudden—people felt dizzy, weak and in pain while at work or in the street. Once the disease became established, the mucous membranes became reddened with sneezing and sometimes hemorrhaged, causing bloody noses. Patients coughed. But the real danger came if the influenza infection progressed to bacterial pneumonia. This phase was often fatal. Victims’ lungs would develop thick, bloody fluid, and the lack of oxygen would turn their faces blue. They would bleed from their noses and ears, and a pinkish froth would spew from the mouth. After hours of anguish, victims would suffocate—drowning in their own lungs.

influenza5 flu.govinfluenza_patients Army

The lungs’ violent reaction was the body’s way of trying to throw out the virus. The immune system toxins designed to destroy invaders went into overdrive and literally scorched the lung tissue. Thus, those healthy 20 – to 40-year-olds—like soldiers in the camps—had the strongest auto-immune response and therefore the highest death rates aside from infants and the old and weak.

The Deadly Flu Spread Rapidly

Because it was wartime, soldiers crossed from camp to camp, and across oceans, spreading the disease across the world. In the summer of 1918, over 1.5 million Americans crossed the Atlantic in the war effort—some from Kansas. The Flu resurfaced in Europe in all of the armies—including the English, French and German. As it spread, the microbe mutated, becoming more deadly by the day.

Cities were hard hit. In New York, 851 people died in a single day. Over 11,000 died in Philadelphia in October of 1918. Death carts roamed the streets. The dead sometimes lay abandoned in gutters. Cities had to resort to mass graves. Crepe on the doors of house after house marked death inside.


People were terrified. Would this disease ever stop? Would it prove the end of mankind?

The Disease Came in Three Waves

This original version of the influenza occurred in the late spring and summer of 1918 as was relatively mild. As the virus mutated, it became more severe and more deadly. The deadliest was the second wave that erupted in the fall of 1918. The final wave hit during the spring of 1919. The last two waves had a much higher frequency of complicated, severe and fatal cases. The severity and speed of the disease was unprecedented. Never before had three extensive pandemic waves of influenza occurred in rapid succession in the same year.

Why it Was Called the “Spanish Flu”

It is important to remember that at the outbreak of the Flu WWI was still raging. The governments of countries actively involved in the Great War—France, Germany, Britain and the United States—did not want the press to print anything negative that might hurt morale. But Spain remained neutral during the war, and reported freely on the disease, especially after King Alphonso XIII himself fell seriously ill. The disease became known as “Spanish Influenza” most likely because only Spanish newspapers were truthfully reporting the spread of the disease.

Why Couldn’t They Stop It?

Towns and cities did what they could. Most governments imposed curfews, suggested masks be worn and banned any public gathering—including funerals. Churches, schools, theaters, pool halls and saloons were all closed. Some towns tried to close their borders altogether.

flu masks

Yet, the virus continued to spread.

The reasons were many. Because of WWI, governments moved troops within their own bases and sent thousands of troops into battle in Europe despite warnings. Misinformation and lack of Information was rampant, such as the mistaken belief that wearing a mask could stop the virus from entering the lungs. People in close proximity, both in military camps and cities, made it easier for the disease to spread to new victims.


Various vaccines were developed and tried with no success. But the vaccines were based on a false premise. Researchers thought the bacteria collected from the lungs of the dead was the cause of the disease and worked to combat the pneumonia bacteria. What they couldn’t see was the influenza virus itself—microscopes in 1918 simply weren’t strong. That technology would take decades.

The Start of the Pandemic

Many medical and conspiracy theories circulated at the time. Some thought the Germans had planted the germ. The evangelist Billy Sunday blamed it on sin. Those in the medical field scrambled to identify what “it” was, at first misdiagnosing it as malaria or thinking it might be a new kind of infection or plague, as it was more deadly than any flu they had ever seen before.

John M. Barry suggests in his book, The Great Influenza, that The Flu began in America. The first reported cases were at Fort Riley, Kansas. An Army private and mess cook Private Albert Gitchell, reported to the camp hospital early on the morning of March 11, 1918. His complaints: fever, sore throat and headache. By noon, over 100 soldiers were ill. By week’s end that number jumped to 500.

nurse mask

Fort Riley stretched 20,000 acres. Winters were brutally cold, summers sweltering, and dust storms blinding. In addition to housing 26,000 men, Camp Funston also held thousands of horses and mules that produced nine tons of manure each month. The common method of disposing of it was to burn it. On Saturday, March 9, 1918, a black sky and driving wind warned of a coming dust storm; yet, the camp burned its daily manure. The dust and ash of the burning manure combined in a stinging, stinking yellow haze. Soldiers ordered to clean up the soot and ash worked with no protection. Two days later, soldiers began falling ill. The Fort was thought to be “Ground Zero”.

Yet, other evidence shows that the flu hit the United States, Europe and Asia at approximately the same time—in March of 1918. Viral sequence data suggest that the 1918 virus was novel to humans, and not a “reassortant virus” produced from old existing strains. Evidence points to swine and avianlike viruses jumping to humans—an H1N1 strain. Older individuals, those born before 1901, may have already been exposed to an earlier strain of The Flu, thus providing them with some immunity to the disease.

Whether Fort Riley was the lone source of the virus will likely never be definitely proven.


The Great Pandemic: The United Sates in 1918-1919;

The Great Influenza; John M. Barry; Penguin Books; 2004, 2005, 2009

Influenza 1918: The Worst Epidemic in American History; The American Experience; produced by PBS; 1998

Pandemic Continuity Specialist;

1918 Influenza: The Mother of all Pandemics; Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens;

The Worst Flu Pandemic on Record;

The Medical and Scientific Conceptions of Influenza;

Pathogenic Responses among Young Adults during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic; G. Dennis Chanks; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Volume 18, Number 2 – February 2012

The Great Migration: Chicago

migration 1 onthemove

Thousands Flee the South for Chicago

Between 1915 and 1970, six to seven million African Americans left their mostly rural homes in the South to start new lives in the cities of the North, Midwest and West. Many moved to Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Often, they followed the train lines.

These immigrants had strong reasons to flee the South.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, state legislatures throughout the South had  passed laws to limit liberties of blacks and to keep the races socially separate–in marriage, housing, education, healthcare and government. Known as Jim Crow, these laws, combined with social mores of the times, created a racial caste system.

Blacks had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, couldn’t contradict a white person or speak first, were relegated to the lowliest jobs, had sub-par schools and were virtually barred from social/financial upward mobility. Even though black men had been legally granted the right to vote in the 15th Amendment, (ratified on February 3, 1870), they were dissuaded from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and out-right physical violence. Without being registered voters, black men could not serve on juries; and, thus, those accused of crimes had little chance of a fair trial from all-white juries.

Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable. … They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left. — Isabel Wilkerson

Migrants fled Jim Crow laws to more racially tolerant cities. They fled for the right to vote. They fled for the chance to make something of themselves. They fled to take jobs in the burgeoning manufacturing sectors–jobs that had now opened up due to WWI, as borders were closed to European immigrant workers and many white males workers joined the fight “over there”.

And they fled in fear.

Lynchings were again on the rise in the South. Fear of losing their cheap labor, and increased resistance spurred by disgruntled sharecroppers and returning black servicemen, spurred white Southerners to a campaign of terror.

“Every time a lynching takes place in a community down south you can depend on it that colored people from that community will arrive in Chicago inside of two weeks.”  — Secretary Arnold Hill of the Chicago Urban League (As quoted in Carl Sandburg’s book The Chicago Race Riots)

So many black men, women and children were murdered in race riots in 25 towns across the country from April – October 1919, (especially in the September 1919 Elaine massacre in Hoop Spur, Arkansas), that the summer of 1919 was named “The Red Summer”.

Chicago: Beulah Land

Chicago already had an established black community going back to the 1840s. And in fact, Chicago was founded by a black man–Jean Baptiste Point du Sable–who started a muddy settlement on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1770s.

Between 1916-1918, at least 110,00 migrated to Chicago alone, nearly tripling the city’s black population. At its height, ten thousand blacks every month overflowed the Chicago railroad platforms and overwhelmed the already crowded Black Belt. Ultimately, more than 500,000 Great Migration immigrants settled in Chicago.

There was an almost reverant attraction for Chicago, as divinely inspired deliverance from the land of suffering, likened to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It was viewed as “The Promised Land” and called “Beulah Land”.

Employers, Relatives and the Chicago Defender

Early on, companies sent recruiters to encourage black workers to come for factory jobs, sometimes even paying train fare. Southern towns eventually taxed labor agents out and word of mouth drove enough new labor that businesses no longer needed to offer incentives.

“Pioneer” immigrants wrote glowing letters of ample and high-paying job opportunities, sent back photos of themselves in fancy clothes and sometimes even traveled back to bring their families North. These “migration chains” linked Chicago with many southern communities, especially in Mississippi.

Declaring May 15, 1917 as the date of the “Great Northern Drive,” the Chicago Defender waged an aggressive recruitment campaign, reporting lynchings in detail and and lauding life in the North. The newspaper listed jobs and trains schedule to facilitate relocation. With a circulation of over 100,000, the Defender was the country’s premiere black newspaper, with a large Southern readership, and is credited with driving thousands of Southern readers to move North.

Travel by Train

The Illinois Central train line ran directly from New Orleans through Jackson, Mississippi to Chicago, so many new Chicagoans heralded from Mississippi. It was not always easy to get away. Blacks were forcibly removed from the trains and their tickets torn to shreds by white landowners fighting to keep their labor in place. To escape, blacks walked miles to the next town so they would not be recognized, often under cover of darkness. When the trains crossed the Mason-Dixon line, black travelers murmured prayers or a few even flexed their new-found freedom by moving into train cars that just minutes before were deemed segregated by law.


Adjusting to City Life

Train travelers were met by family members or former townspeople. Sometimes whole congregations moved to Chicago en masse, forming an instant network. The newly established Chicago Urban League often met travelers at the train station, first, to help them find housing and jobs; and, secondly, to help with employer problems and to better assimilate into their new surroundings.

The adjustments were huge. Rural blacks were not used to the crowded conditions, indoor factory work, constant noise and cold winters. There was also an inherent cultural difference. In the Jim Crow south, for example, a black woman seeking maid work would be viewed as “uppity” if she arrived at an interview dressed in nice attire. She was supposed to arrive “dressed to work.” Yet, in the North, if she arrived at a job interview dressed in her work clothes, she was viewed as unprofessional and not really wanting the job as she didn’t even bother to make herself presentable.

The Chicago Urban League held “Stranger Meetings,” where black club women secured pledges from migrants to dress and act appropriately in public. They distributed a “Self-Help” handout listing rules: Do not loaf. Get a job at once. Do not carry on loud conversations in street cars and public places. Do not keep your children out of school. Cleanliness and fresh air are necessary for good health.

Still Far to Go

Although the migrants enjoyed more freedoms and better paying jobs than in the South, living in Chicago was not exactly as rosy as relatives and newspapers painted it to be. These newly relocated blacks were forced into already overcrowded, over-priced and under-kept tenement housing in Chicago’s “Bronzeville” neighborhood.

Despite the best efforts of the League, the Defender and the established middle class, the influx of such a large number of rural, mostly uneducated blacks raised racial tensions, especially with Irish gangs who viewed them as competition for jobs and housing. Violence and discrimination ran rampant. August of 1919 would push opposing sides to the breaking point.



The Warmth of Other Suns; Isabel Wilkerson

On the Laps of Gods; Robert Whitaker

Chicago and the Great Migration, 1915-1950; Hana Layson with Kenneth Warren; The Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom

Great Migration;

Great Migration; Encyclopedia of Chicago,

Newspapers: The Chicago Defender, Founder Editor Robert S. Abbott;



Cotton and the Sharecropper



Sharecropper cabin

Cotton was King

In the Deep South, cotton was king, not only prior to emancipation, but long after. Sharecropping evolved as a way for white cotton plantation owners to have their cotton cultivated and picked by free black farmers and landless white farmers for low wages and long hours of toil. They were called sharecroppers.

Typically sharecroppers were given a plot of land to work. In exchange for the privilege of using the land, they owed the landowner one-half of the profits at the end of the season. The owner provided the tools and the farm animals. The sharecroppers had to purchase the rest–the seed, tools and fertilizer–and planted their own small gardens. But, while waiting for Settling Day at the end the season, the families often needed help with food and clothing, which was procured on credit from a local merchant or from the “company store”–a store on the plantation itself–all at inflated rates.

On Settling Day, these purchases were deducted from the sharecroppers’ half of the profit. Not surprisingly, the books were often rigged in the landowners’ favor so that the sharecropper was shown to OWE money at the end of a long season. This left many sharecroppers in perpetual debt, tying them to the owner and the land.

Cotton was extremely labor-intensive. Work began in March to  break up the soil, running “Middle-busters” over it to form furrows and mounds. In May, sharecroppers would dig narrow trenches in the mounds and drop cottons every 18″. As the plants sprouted in Spring, the grueling task of chopping began, working down the rows with long-handled hoes to cut back weeds from the tender cotton plants. This job fell to children as young as 6 years old. The heat was stifling and the sun pounding. Bugs, especially mosquitoes and flies, were rampant and cabins were often smoked or sprayed to drive off flies, shuttering windows for the night.


Early in season, light-hued blossoms would appear. These would darken and wilt, falling off  in about three days. Pollination would occur. Soon the tiny green pods would form at the base of the flower.

By July or August, these pods would swell into a bolls–seeds wrapped in willowy fibers. By late August the bolls would split, turning the fields into a sea of white. Stooped or on their knees, the sharecroppers would work their way down the long rows, using one hand to plunk the cotton from its spiky clutch; the other to stuff into a long white bag draped over their shoulders. Some sacks had tar on the bottom to help them slide more easily along the ground. A bag held 100 pounds of raw cotton. A good picker could pick 100 pounds by lunch and another 100 pounds by the end of the day. Fields required several passes as the cotton did not ripen at the same time.

A typical yield was 1500 pounds per ten acres, which translated into 500 pounds of ginned cotton or ten bales. In 1918, cotton was selling at 30 cents a pound.

Cotton House d992c0074e7b65f7e90c24dae5268d59

Settling Day usually took place in late November. With many blacks illiterate, and with the whites not believing figures even if a black man had the ability to kept track, many sharecroppers were taken advantage of.

In 1917-1918, this left sharecroppers with very few choices: to move to another plantation in the hopes of finding a more honest overseer; or to move north, often in the dead of night to avert detection. (See the April 3 Blog on The Great Migration.)

Cotton plantations continued to need large labor forces to hand-pick cotton until the rise of harvesting machines in the 1950s, virtually eliminating the need for manual cotton labor.