Influenza only Unites in Death

It is said that death is the great equalizer. This was perhaps never truer than during the "Spanish" Influenza pandemic of 1917-1919. On the surface, Jim Mitchell and DeWitt Pickett lived in two worlds bounded by class and race. How these men lived and how they were publicly remembered after their deaths could not be more different. What brings Mitchell and Pickett together is how their lives ended. This strain of influenza did not kill like other diseases that targeted infants, the poor, or the elderly. It struck down rich and poor alike, weak and infirm, and most surprisingly of all, the young and healthy.

Affluence that like of DeWitt Clinton Pickett did not shield one from influenza. Pickett was born in Dawson, Terrell County, Georgia, in 1876, to Thomas Hamilton and Anna Elizabeth Pickett. He was the son of a lawyer who became a successful businessman and politician. At the age of 26, on August 6, 1902, he married Mary Pickett. Pickett and his wife began near the top of society and stayed there. Local newspapers reported their attendance at parties hosted by other members of high Southern Georgian society. His relationship with his wife seemed harmonious as it lasted until his death. He served Terrell County for seven years as a Georgia state legislator. From the number of appearances in local papers, Pickett seems to have relished the spotlight. A regular at country clubs, Pickett liked to play Whist, a popular card game most popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In his mid-forties, DeWitt Pickett was also at the peak of his professional career in 1919. Beginning his career selling insurance, DeWitt Pickett had served as vice president of the Chero Cola Company, as a trustee of the Third District Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Georgia Southwestern State University), and owned a bank in Dawson. Through these endeavors, Pickett garnered money as well as influence in affairs of the state. This all ended abruptly in March 1919 when DeWitt Pickett contracted the so-called Spanish Influenza. News of his illness spread and the newspaper ran a short article about it. Pickett moved back to his hometown of Dawson to try and receive treatment there. However, he died there later that month. All of his achievements and his money and fame could not save him from suffering the horrible death from Spanish Influenza. He was 45 years old. Even in death, though, distinction mattered. A photograph of his "vault monument," designed by an entrepreneurial sculptor E. M. Viquensey, appeared in local advertisements for the Schneider Marble Company.

Even in death, Pickett's family sought distinction. Americus Times-Recorder, December 14, 1919.

Dewitt Clinton Pickett's grave, Cedar Hill Cemetery, Dawson, Ga, 2021. Photograph by Evan Kutzler.

Jim Mitchell offers a stark contrast. In comparison to Pickett, little is known about this man's life. No matter how loved he might have been to family or friends, the white writers and readers who lionized Pickett considered Mitchell unworthy of mention. His comings and goings were not featured in newspapers. The reason is simple: Mitchell was a black sharecropper living in rural Georgia. What began as an unequal compromise between white landowners who wanted immobile peons and freedpeople who wanted land or—in its absence—day-to-day freedom from white overseers. Although never an equal playing field, the balance in power under sharecropping became more unequal and more oppressive over time. By World War I, sharecroppers fled the immobility of sharecropping and racial terror to cities to urban centers in the north and south. This movement of people out of the countryside continued for another half century.

Postcard, ca 1907, courtesy of Lee Kinnamon

The silences in the historical records for Jim Mitchell may be more representative of a common experience than DeWitt Picket. Governmental records, few in number, offer important family details. Jim Mitchell was born in Georgia to John and Sarah Ladd Mitchell in 1881. In 1900, the Mitchells were renters and farm laborers. Death had shaped the family experience. Sarah Mitchell had a total of thirteen children, but only eight of the were still living. So, too, did the legacies of slavery hang over the family. Both of his parents were born under slavery and both experienced the freedom from slavery with the end of the Civil War. The legacy of slavery, combined with the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, had limited educational opportunities. None of the adults in the Mitchell household could read or write.

All of the facts, combined, underscore the Mitchell family's precarious financial position and their vulnerability to getting a bad deal by the white property owner. Also, because Mitchell was working on the farm which is back-breaking labor and most likely getting meager wages or food from this, he would not have had time to call in sick. If he had, this would have come at a cost against the family. Beyond these details, we know can say little about Jim Mitchell with certainty. He was married. He fell ill on February 8, 1919. Kenneth Wood, a white physician out of Leslie, Georgia, attended to him the day he died. Bose Hubbard, an undertaker in Leslie, buried him behind New Corinth Cemetery on Hooks Mill Road. He was 37 years old.

New Corinth Baptist Church Cemetery, 1998, National Park Service.

Jim Mitchell and DeWitt Pickett were on two opposite ends of the spectrum in 1919 Georgia. One of the men was at the top of society featured in newspapers that mark his achievements and the other man was at the bottom of society. However, in the larger scope of history, both men are in the dustpan of history. Only DeWitt Pickett has any clear connection to the present and that is through Georgia Southwestern State University. However, for all his money and power, he is as invisible as Jim Mitchell. His name or his story is not known to students, staff, faculty, or administrators. The second thing is that neither of their ages at the time of their deaths fall within the median age range of people killed by the virus. The only thing that united the two men was death by influenza.