The Covid-19 pandemic is poised to kill people on a global scale not witnessed since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Because the influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States, it stands out among scholars as a uniquely catastrophic event. But less well-known is that the typical rate of death from infectious disease among urban nonwhites in the early twentieth century was just as catastrophic -- even in non-pandemic years.
The boll weevil infestation, as Blind Willie McTell sang, would leave farmers without enough money to pay their drug store bills, buy gasoline or meals, but it also reshaped the economy and institutions of the cotton South. When I teach economic history to undergraduate students, I start with a celebration of the exciting, surprising, and … Continue reading The Ballad of the Boll Weevil