Just over 100 years ago, the “Spanish Flu”, an especially virulent 2nd wave of influenza swept the planet. Transmitted by soldiers from Europe after World War I ended to the US, South Africa, and Latin America. The flu claimed millions of lives between 1918 and 1920. Sadly, the flu’s spread through the military was kept secret and under wraps, because there was an active theater of war. Only Spanish journalists could report on it, hence the name. So many were caught up by a widespread lack of knowledge and deliberate ignorance. Today, Covid-19, a hundred years later, is marching across the planet, but we’re fortunate to have a more widespread knowledge, and increasingly, a coordinated effort to flatten the curve of transmission.
Naturally, the recent news made me think about my family their lives during a pandemic. There is at least one documented victim of the flu on the Bobo line of my family, my 2nd great-aunt Annie Bobo-Thomas. In 1920, Aunt Annie Bobo-Thomas was living in Los Angeles with her husband. She was 26 years old, and a court stenographer. She had been there for less than a year when she abruptly returned to her family’s home in the Booker T. Washington Addition neighborhood in Dallas, Texas in May. The Booker T. Washington Addition in Precinct 1 in Dallas was near Flora Ave and McKinney Ave just a few blocks north of downtown Dallas. Anna was very ill, as reported in the Dallas Express (a black newspaper published from 1892 – 1970). The Dallas Morning News reported that the flu had burned itself out by the end of 1919, so was it the Spanish flu?
During this period, Anna’s father Dave “Lee” Bobo worked at the Central Christian Church in Dallas as a Sextant and custodian, her mother Bessie Demings-Bobo was a maid at nearby Southern Methodist University. Annie, the namesake of her grandmother Annie Turner Demings, was the oldest child, one of nine (six survived). None of her family or siblings appear to have caught the flu.
In 1918, World War 1 ended in November and returning troops from Europe brought the Spanish Flu with them to a number of American cities. When the Spanish Flu hit the Dallas, Texas area particularly at Army Camps like Fort Dick, that were full of young men who had been training to fight in the War. The second wave of Spanish Flu was a mutation that hit young men and women hard, with some victims dying within 24 hours. September saw it’s first quarantines. Dr. A.W. Carnes, Dallas’s health officer at the time underestimated the flu, and local officials waffled against his recommendations to start taking action. The Mayor and Chambers of Commerce argued and eventually kept cinemas, churches, and schools open, ultimately worsening the effects of the impact until mid-October when several deaths and hundreds of victims pouring into emergency rooms threatened to overwhelm the city’s health infrastructure. Dallas only had 150,000 people living there at the time. Over 456 people died in the city by year’s end. Ultimately, more U.S. soldiers died of Spanish Flu (63,114), than in combat during the war (53,402).
Annie’s death certificate shows that she had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, “TB”, while living in Los Angeles. She suffered from the bacterial infection from May to July in 1920, but complications from the flu hastened her to her death. Perhaps it was during her work as a stenographer, that she contracted TB. She would have been exposed continuously to people as she transcribed notes into shorthand, in a Los Angeles County Court. While recovering in Dallas, she got the flu, and as we’ve learned more recently, viruses tend to target the most vulnerable among us. While it’s not precisely clear that the strain she had was Spanish Flu, the timing aligns.
Annie Bobo Thomas died on July 14, 1920, and was buried on Dallas’s southside in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Her grandfather John Bobo was previously buried there in 1917. Later, her father Dave, grandmother Alice, and uncle A.K. Bobo would also be buried at Woodlawn.
According to another report in the Dallas Express, before she died, my great-grandfather, David Newton Bobo, 21 years old and married, traveled from Chester, PA in June, home to Dallas. Likely, he was called by his mother to see his older sister, in anticipation that they might lose her.
The lessons of the Spanish Flu were profound. Studies by the CDC about how over 40 American cities responded to the 1918 pandemic lead to the creation of pandemic protocols and policies that protect us today. Key was the many insights learned about social distancing as a communal effort to stop the spread of a virus. During the Spanish Flu pandemic, where one city shut down, lives were saved, where another went ahead blindly, like Dallas or Philadelphia, far more lives were lost.
The point of understanding history, even family history is not to drum up nostalgia or melancholy for the past, but to learn from it. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Los Angeles had shut down the courts during the pandemic? What could have happened had the greedy Mayor and myopic Chamber of Commerce in Dallas had heeded their health officials? Or if Anna was able to recover in isolation. Would she have survived or was it already too late?
What we are presented with today is not exactly unprecedented, though it may feel that way to us. We have history and its lessons to draw upon. We know it takes a community, not just the government to fight a pandemic. We don’t have to wonder what might have been. We have to act now for what could be.
Please, stay home, stay safe, and help flatten the curve of Covid-19.
- Dallas County Death Certificate, Annie Bobo Thomas, 1920.
- The Dallas Express, 29 May 1920, Annie Bobo Thomas.
- The Dallas Express, 12 June 1920, David Bobo Jr.
- The Dallas Morning News, 1920.
- Tarrant, David. “100 years ago, the deadliest flu of all time devastated Dallas as it swept through the world” The Dallas News, October 2018.
- US Census, Dallas County, Dallas, 1910, 1920.