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A look at Greenville a century ago amidst the Great War, Spanish flu

Greenville News logo Greenville News 7/13/2019 The Greenville News
a group of people posing for a photo © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

Although Greenville was doing reasonably well a century ago, this nation was not in good shape. Looking back 100 years can, perhaps, put both in perspective.

1919 was not a very good year for America. 

While soldiers were rapidly returning from the battlefields and hospitals of the Great War, and rationing of sugar, coal, and meat had ended, the Spanish flu epidemic still lingered.

President Woodrow Wilson, presiding over an American population of 104 million, spent the first six months of the year in Europe, pushing for peace and the League of Nations. When he returned to this country, he spent the next six months trying (unsuccessfully) to convince Congress to vote in favor of the League.

a group of people posing for a photo: Camp Sevier's hospital operated for almost five years after the World War I Armistice, but in 1919 the full contingent of nurses was still almost entirely occupied with cases of Spanish flu. © Courtesy Greenville County Library Camp Sevier's hospital operated for almost five years after the World War I Armistice, but in 1919 the full contingent of nurses was still almost entirely occupied with cases of Spanish flu.

Disasters, strikes, bombings, and scandals (as well as the Republican-dominated Senate) got in his way.

Workers were feeling the aftereffects of World War I. From full wartime employment and relative prosperity (especially in cotton mills) in that post-war year, inflation flared, unemployment increased, production declined, and workingmen joined unions seeking better wages and conditions.

More than 3,300 strikes resulted, all too often, in violence. Some of that violence was between federal troops called out to keep order and the strikers, others between picketers and deputies.

The Port of New York, for example, closed for several days in January when dock workers went on strike, and the following month a city-wide strike (the first in American history) of 20,000 union members brought Seattle to a stop for four days. The governor, calling for federal troops, blamed it on “Bolsheviki, IWW members, and alien radicals.”

The four-month strike against Carnegie Steel in a half-dozen states focused on union recognition, better pay and an 8-hour day. It failed. So did the Boston Police Strike. At its conclusion, officials refused to rehire striking policemen. A general coal strike brought violence (not for the last time) to West Virginia mines.

Because some union members were recent immigrants from Russia, where the aftermath of the Communist Revolution was still raging, and others — millions — had immigrated from Southern and Eastern Europe since the late 1880s, strikes and violence were blamed on foreigners.

The “Red Scare” arose from these fears. Nativists ranted about a home-grown Communist revolution, created by immigrants, who would overturn “the American Way of Life,” and those fears were publicized by mainstream media. The scare gained fuel when a small group of anarchists made plans to mail 36 bombs on May Day 1919 to business and government leaders.

Among their targets (most unsuccessful, although they did damage property) was J. Mitchell Palmer, the Attorney General. He and the government responded with arrests (many without warrants) of more than 4,000 radicals and union organizers, mostly aliens, and repression of radical groups and periodicals. About 250 aliens were immediately deported.

Race riots, however, were homegrown. Black men, returned from fighting for their country, looked for more equitable treatment. They didn’t find it. Riots occurred in Chicago (the worst, with 33 dead), Washington, D.C., Knoxville, Norfolk, and Helena, Arkansas, where 13 died.

South Carolina Congressman James Byrnes recommended the arrest of W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP and history professor at Atlanta University because he had, in the pages of his magazine, discussed (and strongly objected to) the prejudice and intolerance directed at blacks returning from war service.

Disasters piled on disasters. The brave new year started in Boston, for example, with the great molasses flood of January 1919. A huge and shoddily constructed tank exploded with “machine gun fire,” driving 14,000 tons of raw molasses over the neighborhood, destroying houses and crumbling elevated railroad tracks. The 30-foot molasses wave killed 11 people, most of them children, and injured 60. Owners blamed the explosion on “anarchists.” (A later investigation blamed the construction company.)

Depending on your viewpoint, the passage of the 18th, or Prohibition Amendment, which went into effect with the passage of the Volstead Act in October, was either a disaster or a noble attempt at legislating morality.

And then there was the Black Sox Scandal. Greenville native (Shoeless) Joe Jackson was among those accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. At his 1920 trial, he was found innocent, but baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned him from baseball for life. That decision, and the fact that he has also been banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame, has kept Jackson in the limelight for a century.

a black and white photo of Donald Davies: H. C. Harvley, who came to Greenville with the C &WC Railroad, was mayor in 1919. His grandson, Cooper White, served in that office in 1970. © Submitted photo H. C. Harvley, who came to Greenville with the C &WC Railroad, was mayor in 1919. His grandson, Cooper White, served in that office in 1970.

At home, Greenville’s mayor was W. C. Harvley. The city’s population was about 20,000, with nearly 20,000 more people living in its mill village “suburbs.”

The biggest local news was destructive fires. The first, in January, destroyed two major North Main Street department stores, doing $100,000 worth of damage.

The second, in April, leveled most of the former Chicora College campus, by then the Colonial Theatre and apartments on South Main Street in the West End. It severely damaged the Coca-Cola warehouse across the street, and sparks leveled a house in the Camperdown Mill Village.

Greenville’s lack of firefighting equipment, caused by infighting between City Council and the Fire Commission about what brand of fire engine to purchase, caused much of the destruction. City Council won (although the engine it purchased broke down at its second outing.)

an old photo of a horse drawn carriage: The LaFrance fire truck that City Council finally bought for the Fire Department was the very latest model. © Courtesy Greenville County Library The LaFrance fire truck that City Council finally bought for the Fire Department was the very latest model.

But there was good news. Newly completed Textile Hall on West Washington Street was flourishing. In May it successfully hosted the third Southern Textile exposition; in June, a huge upstate automobile and fashion show; and in midsummer, a Southern Baptist meeting to plan a multi-state $75 million campaign for colleges.

In late September, Textile Hall hosted the biggest party Greenville had ever known. It was the headquarters for the first reunion of the 30th Division, which had trained at Camp Sevier. For three days the entire city expanded to make room for nearly 7,000 veterans. Huge kitchens at Textile Hall, St. Mary’s, and the nearby Presbyterian and Methodist churches provided meals. The Greenville News pleaded with readers to offer cars (for transportation from the railroad station), beds, food, and volunteers to cook, drive, entertain, and organize the party-goers.

a close up of a newspaper: "The Pig's" Greenville opening was celebrated with flowers for visitors who gazed in wonder at its aisles and turnstyle. © Submitted photo "The Pig's" Greenville opening was celebrated with flowers for visitors who gazed in wonder at its aisles and turnstyle.

After non-stop speeches, parades, banquets, and entertainment, it ended on Sept. 30, when residents welcomed another innovation: the first Piggly Wiggly grocery in South Carolina. It opened on West McBee Street, offering an entirely new concept in grocery stores: no delivery, no credit, no telephone sales, self-selection, and prices almost 20 percent lower than those at other groceries. The 4-year-old chain with 139 stores nationally had started in Memphis.

The city also welcomed the dedication of Manly Field, Furman’s new football stadium, complete with concrete bleachers. 

It also saw the start of a local chapter of Kiwanis International, a 4-year-old Rotary-like organization that had its first meeting at the Imperial Hotel (now the Greenville Summit) on Sept. 18. The club’s first project was raising $6,000 to equip four new city playgrounds. 

As 1919 drew to a close, Greenvillians were hopeful. The city was expanding—117 new houses had been built during the year, and businessmen traded rumors of new cotton mills coming. Residents looked forward to a new decade.

It would begin with a presidential election, Prohibition and women voting, and end with the coming of the Great Depression.

Comments? Questions? Write to Judy.Bainbridge@furman.edu.

This article originally appeared on The Greenville News: A look at Greenville a century ago amidst the Great War, Spanish flu

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