Reopening Too Soon? Lowcountry Mayor and Charleston Historian Reflect on the Spanish Flu

May 20, 2020

It was the fall of 1918.  Charleston had quickly gone from a bustling city to a vacant, ghost town.  People were quarantined for five weeks because of a deadly  pandemic.  They were restless, eager to get back to business as usual.

Sound familiar?

King Street in Charleston during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020

Under Quarantine 1918

"Something we all in Charleston are experiencing right now happened in a very similar way,” says College of Charleston historian Jacob Steere-Williams.  He's been studying pandemics for 20 years.

The current coronavirus is much different than the Spanish Flu that claimed more than 50 million lives worldwide in 2018 and 2019.  But Steere-Williams finds familiarities in our response.

"You see businesses writing the mayor and writing the health officer," he says.  "They are imploring them to open back up, to open movie theaters, to open churches."

By November, the number of cases of Spanish Flu in Charleston seemed to have plateaued.  Nearly 6,000 people had become ill.  More than 200 died.  

Then mayor Tristram Hyde not only lifted the quarantine but called for a celebration November 11, 1918.  It was Armistice Day marking the end of World War I.

Associate Professor at the College of Charleston Jacob Steere-Williams has been studying pandemics for 20 years.

"The bells started ringing out," says Steele- Williams.  "The people started throwing on clothes and they made their way to Marion Square."

He says more than 5,000 people gathered at 3 o'clock in the morning.

"News reports by the way mention revolvers going off, bells clanging and flags being hoisted," he says.  "This lasted several hours."

But the celebration was short lived.  In the weeks following that mass gathering, the pandemic returned with a vengeance.  An additional 1,000 people got sick and dozens more died.

"The mayor and the health officer are faced with this really difficult, embarrassing situation," says Steere-Williams.  "They're forced to re-issue another quarantine."

The Second Wave 1919

While Charleston was the epicenter for the Spanish Flu in South Carolina, people across the state lost their lives including Will Haynie's family. He's the mayor of Mount Pleasant, the state's fourth largest city located just outside of Charleston.

"I'm the great-grandson of someone who died in the second wave of the Spanish Flu in 1919," he says.  "So, I am weary, you better believe, of a second wave."

The mayor's grandmother, Lucy Sherard Sullivan, was orphaned by the prolonged 1919 pandemic.  Haynie says she was just 7 years-old when her mother lost her life. He believes her father died from the flu as well, although his history is a little less certain. 

The mayor's grandmother grew up at the Thornwell Orphanage in Clinton, S.C.  She passed away when he was a senior in high school.

"I think about her a lot," he says.  "She handled everything with joy and strength."

Lucy Sherard Sullivan was orphaned by the second wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919. She was the grandmother of Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie.

Now he's trying to lead his community through a difficult and uncertain time.

"There's been a lot more flack on the let's get back to normal side than there was on the coming in side," says Haynie.

In late March, the mayor issued a stay at home order one week before the governor.  The state order has since been lifted and people are out and about again trying to get back to business.  But it's anything but business as usual.  Haynie worries is the town doing too much too soon?

"It's about lives and livelihoods and there has to be a balance."

But finding that balance is easier said than done.

"I can tell you, I've had some soul searching moments," says the mayor.

Lessons learned?

So will there be a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic?

Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie

"I hope we don't have it," says Mayor Haynie.  "I hope we learned."

"You know, the last great pandemic, it was pretty quickly forgotten, and its lessons were lost in some important ways," says Steele-Williams.

The College of Charleston associate professor says now is the time to start remembering the current pandemic.

"I mean, we're living that same situation now of reopening where some leading scientists are unsure."

What's more, Steele-Williams says pandemics and politics have long gone hand in hand.  

He points to Charleston Mayor Tristram Hyde who lost his bid for re-electionn in 1919.  He had financially gutted the city's public health infrastruction prior to the pandemic.  The public health officer at the time, John Mercer Green, was opposed to lifting the quarantine.

"Charleston per capita was investing the lowest amount of any American city of it's size in terms of health infrastructure."

Steele-Williams says newly elected mayor John Grace, who lost his seat to Hyde in 1915, went on to help Green establish Charleston County's first public health office.

That's not the only silver lining.

"Pandemics can cause questioning, but they can also be galvanizing moments for furthering science," he says.

Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie agrees.  He says this pandemic should not only galvanize scientists but communities.  He says people need to work together, despite differing opinions.

"This is the time to be calm and project we're going to be okay," he says.

A little more than a century later, we are still learning.