This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.
In 1918, the United States faced one of the worst public health challenges in its history. An influenza pandemic – also known as the Spanish flu – infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, killing 20-50 million people, including hundreds of thousands of Americans.
In response to that crisis, the American Red Cross mobilized countless Americans to assist their fellow citizens. Historical primary sources provide examples of civic virtue–that is, of citizens dedicating themselves to the common welfare, even at the cost of their own interests. By examining such sources, students can reflect on how civic virtue was practiced in the past, and how the concept might apply today.
Introduce students to the Spanish flu by asking them to examine this image of masked men near a Seattle street car.
As they produce observations, reflections, and questions, students may note the face masks and speculate that they are related to an infectious disease. They may wonder why the conductor is holding up his hand or what he is saying to the others. Introduce the caption and invite students to wonder about the extent of volunteer activities led by the Red Cross.
Next, divide students into groups and invite them to analyze an additional source, responding to the focus question: “How did U.S. citizens serve their communities during the Spanish flu?” Some possible sources include:
- “Red Cross Opens Influenza Hospital“ – an article asking citizens to donate food to the hospital.
- “The Public Health Nurse: She answers humanity’s call” – a poster inviting citizens to donate money to support community nurses.
- “Many Women Nursing; More Badly Needed” – an appeal by the Red Cross Influenza Committee to fill an urgent nursing shortage.
- “Need Red Cross Workers to Make More Flu Masks” – a call for volunteers to make flu masks. (On the same page, “Flu Nurse Dies as Martyr to Disease” illustrates the extent to which many volunteers sacrificed.)
Each group can then report their findings to the class. Then, point out that the American Red Cross was supported by the government with a mandate to provide public service, but managed privately, as it is today. Ask students to read the article “Red Cross Activities” and list reasons the article gives as to why the Red Cross handled the relief work described, such as their ability to mobilize volunteers and raise funds quickly, while giving citizens an opportunity to act upon their naturally philanthropic impulses.
Conclude by asking students to reflect on how government, voluntary organizations, and citizens worked together to tackle community problems in the past. What lessons about civic virtue emerge? How can these lessons be applied to their own role as citizens?