American Red Cross to celebrate 130 years of service

The American Red Cross, the world-renowned, disaster relief, volunteer-led organization with a Sacramento chapter since 1898, is about to celebrate a special anniversary.
American Red Cross Capital Region Chapter members gather together at the chapter’s headquarters near Cal Expo. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

American Red Cross Capital Region Chapter members gather together at the chapter’s headquarters near Cal Expo. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

It was on May 21, 1881, thus nearly 130 years ago, that the ARC was founded by Clara Barton.

Furthermore, on a national level, this is currently a very notable time for the organization.

This month is Red Cross Month, a recognition that has been a tradition since President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was serving as the honorary chairman of the organization, first declared March as a special month for the organization in 1943.

Since then, United States presidents have continued to proclaim March as Red Cross Month on an annual basis.

As a fundraising campaign with a goal of collecting $125 million, the original Red Cross Month received an overwhelming response as the goal was reached in less than six weeks.

Further proving that the public did not recognize Red Cross Month as a drive with an expiration date, funds continued to be donated to the organization. By June 1943, the drive had resulted in donations totaling about $146 million.

Because of this initial success, Red Cross Month became a tradition that has assisted the Red Cross in fulfilling its mission, which reads as follows: “The American Red Cross, a humanitarian organization led by volunteers and guided by its Congressional Charter and the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross Movement, will provide relief to victims of disaster and help people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies.”

Clara Barton, who was also known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” founded the American Red Cross in 1881. / Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross

Clara Barton, who was also known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” founded the American Red Cross in 1881. / Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross

Furthermore, the ARC described its role as an organization that “shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation’s blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families.”

With a long history of responding to the nation’s needs, the ARC, which is strictly a charitable, non-government agency that relies on the volunteer support of the American public to perform its services, has grown with the times.

For all the good that the ARC does to assist others in needs, none of the many services of the organization would have been possible without the work of its founder.

And for this reason, it is important in any overview of the ARC’s history to highlight Clara Barton.

Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton in Oxford, Mass. on Christmas Day in 1821, Barton can be considered a holiday gift for countless people who have benefitted from the services of the ARC since its founding.

But in order to have a better understanding of how long Barton maintained a deep interest in assisting others in need, it is necessary to know that Barton was active in helping such people long before she founded the ARC.

With the beginning of the Civil War, little time passed before Barton was dedicating her time to helping soldiers in her home state.

Initially, Barton cooked for soldiers and also ripped sheets into towels and handkerchiefs for them.

But her efforts did not stop there, as Barton was dedicated to bringing comfort to the sick and the wounded from the battlefield, and fought for permission to bring food, medicine and supplies to soldiers on the frontlines.

An American Red Cross worker speaks to an injured soldier in a field hospital in Vietnam. / Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross

An American Red Cross worker speaks to an injured soldier in a field hospital in Vietnam. / Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross

Through these efforts, she received the nickname, the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Following the war, Barton was commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln to search for missing Union soldiers and she also initiated a movement to have a national cemetery constructed for Union soldiers who died in the Andersonville prison – the Confederate prison of war camp, which was officially known as Camp Sumter – in Andersonville, Ga.

Barton’s goodwill nature and experience in helping those in need led to her founding of the American Association of the Red Cross – the name was later shortened to the American Red Cross – which evolved to become known as the nation’s premier emergency response organization.

In understanding that disasters result in human suffering, Barton, who served as the Red Cross’ first president, recognized a need for a volunteer organization that would be available during emergencies.

Barton, as well as the Red Cross symbol, became synonymous with the fact that comfort would be offered by the organization to those who suffered due to disasters.

The first American Red Cross chapter was organized at the Lutheran Church of Dansville, N.Y.

Among the early service of the Red Cross was its assistance to victims of the Ohio and Mississippi floods of 1884.

It was also during the same year that Barton served as a delegate to the International Peace Congress in Geneva, Switzerland.
Nurses work at an American Red Cross recruiting station to field new members during World War II. / Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross

Nurses work at an American Red Cross recruiting station to field new members during World War II. / Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross

Five years later, the Sacramento Record-Union printed the following quote regarding Barton: “The sublime life of this plain, simple, unpretentious and self-sacrificing woman is one of the grandest monuments to charity and merciful kindness the world has witnessed.”

In 1898, the Red Cross played a very significant role in the Spanish-American War, as the organization assisted refugees and prisoners of war.

Since its early beginnings, the ARC has expanded to other cities across the nation, and today the organization, which also provides assistance in other countries, has many chapters throughout the nation.

Sacramento’s chapter, which was previously known as the Sacramento Sierra Chapter and is presently known as the Capital Region Chapter, was established in 1898.

The founding of the Sacramento chapter was very timely, considering that only seven years after its organization, the chapter was assisting in the relief efforts of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

This 1956 “On the Job” recruiting poster by John Gould is among the many posters that were designed to recruit American Red Cross volunteers. / Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross

This 1956 “On the Job” recruiting poster by John Gould is among the many posters that were designed to recruit American Red Cross volunteers. / Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross

The Red Cross’ local and national response to this disaster prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to describe the Red Cross as “the national organization best fitted to undertake the outpouring of the nation’s aide.”

The ARC also provided assistance during the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic and World Wars I and II.

Leftover ARC funds from the Great War were utilized to create the “Baby Clinic,” which became part of the Sacramento Health Clinic in 1927.

During World War II, the Sacramento chapter was a 24 hours per day operation, and overall, Sacramento contributed $468,037 to the National War Relief Effort.

The Sacramento chapter responded to five American River floods and the Yuba City-Marysville floods during the 1950s, and during the Vietnam War, ARC programs were expanded to assist the military and their families.

In more recent times, the ARC’s Sacramento chapter has continued to provide local and national assistance, including its aide to Hurricane Katrina.

Trista Jensen, communications and marketing director for the Capital Region Chapter, said that as a representative of the American Red Cross, she is pleased that the organization has been able to successfully operate with consistency for the past 130 years.

“I think what’s remarkable about the American Red Cross is that we are still doing the things that we started doing 130 years ago,” Jensen said. “We started serving people in the battlefield, responding to disasters and helping people in their greatest time of need. Whether that’s a house fire across the street, a hurricane across the country or a major disease breakout across the world, we’re still responding in the same manner that we were 130 years ago.”

lance@valcomnews.com