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My McByrde Family and the Spanish Flu

At the end of 2019, I began to hear rumors of a strange, new virus that was plaguing China. Like most Americans, I figured that the story would make waves in the news for a short time and then die down as similar ones had in the past. This time was different. This time, I would witness our entire modern way of life turned upside down as COVID-19 has effected how our entire species eats, learns, gathers, plays and prays.

As a genealogist of African descent, I strive to live out the Akan principal of Sankofa. This principal (which is illustrated by the Sankofa Bird) evokes the ideas of both memory and forward movement. As the bird ever looks back on its path, its body continues to move into the future. This, I believe is a critical aspect of being a family historian of African descent.

In reflecting on how COVID-19 has impacted our society, many observers have reminded the general public of the Spanish Flu outbreak that ravaged the nation in the early 1920's. Ironically, that pandemic's cause is related to the one that is effecting our society today. I found myself wondering, how my ancestors dealt with that pandemic and the story that I have to share is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

My 4x Great-Grandparents Joseph and Jane McBryde of Troy, Alabama (pictured above with their children) were both victims of the Spanish Flu pandemic. Both of them died in February of 1919 a mere four days apart. This left their two oldest daughters, their oldest son and some son in-laws to tend to their estate and to raise the balance of their 13 children. My 3x Great-Grandmother Alberta McBryde-Townsend was one of the two oldest daughters tasked with this immense responsibility.

Grandfather Joseph was born enslaved in Pike County, Alabama to his father Henry McBryde and his mother Mary Cade-McBryde. He was the third of seven children and was still a child when the Civil War ended. During his life, he became a land-owner with a 160 acre farm in the unincorporated community of Spring Hill which is just south of the city of Troy. Joseph McBryde and his family attended Elam Missionary Baptist Church and he was very active in his Prince Hall Affiliated masonic lodge, Myrtle Lodge #162. Joe McBryde served as both Treasurer and Secretary at various points according to the record. My 4x Great-Grandparents were co-founders of a chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, known as Arnold Chapter #340 where he served as the first Worthy Patron. Both the lodge and chapter still exist today.

The death of a parent is devastating to any child or set of children. Losing two parents in such a short time span and in the midst of a pandemic is something that all too many people have been faced with over the course of the past year and a half. The effects can reverberate long after the parent has bee laid to rest. After learning of this story from my grandfather, I began researching this family line of mine as thoroughly as I could. With an amazing photograph like the one above, how could I not?

Although I continue my search, so far I have learned that following the death of Joe McBryde, it was uncovered that he had left no last will and testament. His children essentially took cash for the property from the mortgage holder as their parents had not finished paying off the mortgage, but they were not behind on their payments thankfully. The record of the Pike County Probate court indicates that the family owned livestock and farming implements and that Grandfather Joseph had taken out a life insurance policy from Standard Life Insurance Company of Atlanta. This African American owned firm was at one time one of the largest private companies in African America and had originally been affiliated with the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Could this be evidence of Joe McBryde having been an Odd Fellow? Hopefully time will tell.

One of the most surprising finds from this tragedy was the fact that my Uncle William J. McBryde and Aunt Charlie McBryde were legally emancipated due to the loss of their parents. Court records show that they were vouched for by their brother James K. McBryde and two Brother in-laws; Jacob Arnold and Tobe Townsend (my 3x Great Grandfather). It was amazing to know that my illusive ancestor Tobe Townsend stepped in to help his in-laws in this situation. All of these documents stemmed from a tragic loss.

In closing, I challenge all who read this piece to consider how our current COVID-19 tragedies might impact the future study of family history.

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