There are holes in the story of how Horry and Georgetown counties, and really all of South Carolina, weathered the ‘Spanish Influenza’ outbreak more than a century ago. 

In fact, all of the historical documents in possession of the South Carolina archives on how the 1918 pandemic affected African Americans can likely fit onto one email. 

Michael Allen, a historian with the S.C. African American Heritage Commission, found this out when he requested all of the documents on how the 20th century pandemic affected people of color. His curiosity for the previous pandemic peaked after standing in Sam’s Club when he realized he too was in a historic moment. 

Allen noticed other African Americans hurrying to get their supplies, adjusting for grocery store shortages, standing 6 feet apart and wearing a mask. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 was fundamentally changing people’s behavior. 

“I began looking at their faces and expressions as to them in this line and the process of having to deal with this,” Allen said. “The historian side of me said, ‘The fact that this is where we are in time, place and space, this looks like history.’”

But Allen still can’t learn from how a past pandemic affected African Americans over a century ago.

Conway Medical Center has provided images to the Horry County Museum to help in the efforts to preserve the history surrounding COVID-19 and 2020.

So he and a group of others decided to take preserving modern history into their own hands to ensure future generations can learn from 2020. They have joined museums, libraries and archives across the state in trying to make sure future generations are able to properly learn from today. 

“It’s very unfortunate because history informs me in that moment the majority of the people in the state were African Americans,” Allen added. “Hopefully 100 years from now when people look back on our times, they will not receive that type of answer … Especially when people ask about the history of African Americans, they should not receive this response.”

Coronavirus has in many ways changed the way South Carolinians dress, what items they carry with them and what they consider familiar. By now, washing your hands and masks-required signs are commonplace. Many people own several masks, reserving favorites to wear with certain outfits. 

While many of the social-distancing customs will change over time, certain items and stories preserved now will become historical artifacts and accounts.

Allen inspired the creation of a large archival project trying to document African-American art and perspectives for the state archival system and the African American Heritage Commission. The first installation and current project, titled ‘Portraits of a Pandemic,’ is collecting oral histories, arts, essays and poems from African-American residents of the state. 

Conway Medical Center has provided images to the Horry County Museum to help in the efforts to preserve the history surrounding COVID-19 and 2020.

“The response to the project has been overwhelming,” said Ramon Jackson who works with the portraits project, with more than 100 submissions recorded so far. One notable submission was a photograph of a couple kissing through their masks. The stark image led to the couple being interviewed about married life during quarantine. 

Ideally, the portraits project will have two oral history interviews from every county in the state with only Beaufort, Florence, Greenville, Charleston, Kershaw, Orangeburg, Richland and Spartanburg counties being fully accounted for. In addition, Jackson would like to see oral histories from a diverse background within the black community, including the LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and people experiencing homelessness.

“The heart of the project is really the oral histories,” said Jackson, who also works with the state archives and the SCAAHC. “Every couple weeks we get something new and we are trying to solicit additional funding.” 

Submission information can be found on their project’s website, with Allen indicating the project will continue until it’s clear the pandemic is over. 

Georgetown’s Gullah Museum is using the pandemic as a time to also document oral histories, particularly from its co-founder Andrew Rodrigues. The museum is currently open by appointment only, but Rodrigues wanted to get back inside as soon as the governor lifted restrictions. 

His children decided now would be the best time to document Rodrigues knowledge of the Gullah-Geechee culture and his life history. While they’re not documenting any current artifacts from the pandemic, they’re hoping to preserve valuable history. 

“My father is a lawyer by training. Couple that with a ferocious appetite for history and you have someone we really need to write down his stories, especially the ways he tells them,” said Janette Rodrigues, Andrew’s daughter.  “It was through having conversations with my dad I learned we have Gullah-Geechee on both sides of our family.” 

A lot of the history Rodrigues is sharing can be found on the Gullah Museum’s social media feeds. 

Collecting items and oral histories as an event unfolds has both benefits and challenges for archivists, museums curators and historians, South Carolina History Museum Cultural History Curator JoAnn Zeise said. 

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“You have the political and the social things going on, as well as environmental stuff going on. There is a lot going on that directly impacts South Carolinian lives,” Zeise said. “Now if we are in the moment, and we can get into those communities, we can make sure we capture the context of all these things … If we, in 200 years, only saved things from the pandemic, and not from the political side, that’s not really telling the context.” 

Allen added that preserving African American perspectives is especially important because the pandemic has disproportionately affected black people in South Carolina and across the country. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic brought social injustices that pre-existed the virus like the policing, inequality in schooling and access to public health resources to the forefront of national conversations. 

“We are in trying times. Placed in the middle of this, questions of race, history, culture, society, systemic racism are all intertwined into COVID-19,” Allen said. “On top of it all, there is a social conversation our nation needs to have, shall have and must have that will have impacts on the progression of COVID-19.” 

Working on preserving the present moment is different from what Zeise is used to, given she typically focuses on the 19th century. She stressed the importance of respecting the story as it unfolds and trying to include a diverse set of voices. 

Hillary Nina Winburn, the curator for the Horry County Museum, looks at medical materials from the 1920s that are on display at the museum.

By Nick Masuda

But not every item can be saved, and even those preserved could lose significance as future generations ascribe their own meanings to what happened in 2020. So curators must guess what items will be useful to those future audiences.

Winburn said she has thought about football games and other classic elements of Horry County culture that changed. Right now, the Horry County Museum is mostly sticking to photographs of when hospitals set up overflow tents or restaurants that changed dining rooms to limit seating. 

“We are not getting oral histories yet, but just those photographs of how things have changed,” Winburn said. “You can talk about it all day and try to visualize what it looked like in your head, but having those visuals is important.” 

She began collecting materials from the time after realizing how few documents the museum had from how the 1918 pandemic affected Horry County. Other than a few newspaper articles and general medical equipment from the time, she didn’t have much information on how day-to-day life was upended. 

Wilburn added that the museum has begun collecting some homemade masks and even a few stickers from people who were tested for the virus. As more items become available, the museum will start to preserve them. 

The state museum has collected pandemic artifacts from staff members, like information about how their kid’s graduations were handled last spring. It also takes donations of items from private citizens with online instructions on how to donate during this time. 

Zeise asked South Carolinians to think hard about what items are important to them now and how the pandemic has changed their lives. Even if one isn’t interested in donating to a museum, Zeise said future generations within individual families will likely appreciate knowing how their ancestors fared during the pandemic. 

“I think about what if my grandparents wrote down what it was like to go through the 1918 pandemic. Even if it wasn’t in a museum, that would still be really meaningful to me,” she said. “We are thinking about it and encouraging South Carolinians to document how they’re coping with this time.”

Still, curators don’t want to pull or accept items that could be used to keep folks safe like medical equipment or hand sanitizer. Meredith Nichter, a recent hire at the SC Museum as a science and technology curator, created an exhibit on how companies pivoted to making personal protective equipment during the early days of the pandemic. 

Hillary Nina Winburn, the curator for the Horry County Museum, stands in front of the facility in Conway.

By Nick Masuda

While she wanted to tell the story on how companies changed gears so quickly, she also didn’t want to take critical supplies from those who need them. 

“If you don’t have any to spare, I’ll take a picture. I don’t want to take anything that could help people. It is a delicate thing to collect these items,” said Nichter. “It’s really strange to collect knowing we are in a historic moment.”

The portrait project wants to display the original art it receives as submissions in a gallery one day. All sorts of media from paintings to poems are accepted because project planners didn’t want to limit anyone’s expressions of how the pandemic affected them. 

Allen considers the portraits effort to be akin to other projects that captured black perspectives during challenging times, like the WPA Narrative that during the 1930s preserved the voices of previously enslaved African Americans at the onset of the Jim Crow Era. 

To him, the coronavirus era has laid bare social injustices like police brutality, inequality in schooling and access to public health resources. Further, as a historian, Allen knows that how people responded to these issues will become history. 

And while the year isn’t over, and the pandemic ongoing, Allen hopes in 50 or 60 years future historians don’t have to guess how African Americans felt during 2020. 

“I put it in an old Gullah song, it’s a song we would sing when I was younger in church. The body of the song is ‘I look back and wonder how I got over,’” Allen said.

“I believe when people start to read the testimonies and words of people who lived through this experience, it will inform the future about how people got over and what they had to do in order to survive.”

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