While our participation in this happened with the parade in September, the exhibit (with a film of the parade) is at the Mütter Museum for the next three years, I believe. (This is how I’m trying to get away with not having this post be referred to as “late”, although the kids were only involved in the prep, and ended up being the faces of the event in the press, but did not attend the actual event. Tucker and I were volunteers and were not sure how much focus we would need.)
But as far as history goes, the kids learned a lot by hanging out down on Washington Ave. with Blast Theory, a UK arts collective that put together this first-ever public memorial to the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and it’s effects on Philadelphia, a city hit very, very hard.
If you ask most kids “What happened in 1918 and 1919 that killed more people than World Wars I and II combined?” I don’t think most would know. Mine do. And they get their flu shots. We all do.
Spit Spreads Death: The Parade in Philly allowed everyone involved to walk in memory of a Philadelphian killed in the pandemic by the “Spanish” Flu. I walked for a little baby named Evelyn.
Tucker walked for a firefighter from East Passyunk whose name was George and who was in his twenties. If the layout of South Philly has stayed the same, it is possible that this firefighter worked out of the firehouse on our own block. Tuck was not able to carry the sign with the name of his honored one because Tuck was pushing one of the enormous glowing rectangles that were the feature of the Parade.
Weeks before the event we helped shoot promotional photos.
And then we saw them used online, and in the press.
Philadelphia fell prey to a tremendous outbreak of this flu because of… a parade. The Liberty Loan Parade of September 28, 1918 — held exactly 101 years before it was memorialized — was held to raise money and morale for WWI fighting efforts, and allowed Philadelphians, many of whom were already actively ill, and many more who were contagious, to clamor close on Broad Street and make Philadelphia the hardest hit major city in America, with 20,000 Philadelphians succumbing over a six-month period.
This tragedy has never been memorialized pubicly until the event we took part in.
Planning sessions with Blast Theory gave us interesting background information on how such big parades are planned.
Tucker went down hours before I did and got training sessions in working with his team to push the big glowing rectangle, which, as the Parade began and proceeded up Broad, got brighter and brighter.
Those of us who walked for an individual were given the gift of a copy of their death certificate. At a point in the Parade on Broad St., we were asked to stand in a marked spot while our “loved one’s” name was spoken aloud.
There was also recorded singing of the names of the victims, and then choral singing from an old public health brochure about how to prevent the spread of the disease.
Oh what a long walk. So solemn and so beautiful. It was not easy to be in it and take pictures of it. We rounded City Hall to end it and I snapped Octavio V. Catto.
We were given a meal on the other side of City Hall, and transportation money home. Ran into a friend we had not seen in years, the woman who taught Tucker to walk on stilts for his twenty-first birthday, and met her stepdaughter. We sat together and talked.
I didn’t think I had it in me but we then walked to Wawa and I bought the biggest lemonade I had ever had, and drank it in about two gulps.
We had been sending the kids photos all night, including the inch-long blood blister on my foot (impressive).
Here are a few other screenshots of images of the Parade that came from Blast Theory photographers. This is what it looked and felt like.
We have yet to go to the exhibit at the Mütter, but will probably do so over the holidays. Will certainly report in when we do! We have always loved taking part in processions — volunteering for community parades, even outside of one’s own community, and helping to build and plan for them, is a tremendous learning experience.
Remembering those who had been forgotten for a hundred and one years — and remembering that such a thing could happen again to our community at any time (it most certainly could) — is a necessary experience.