Heroes of the American Red Cross

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Freedom Center Voices
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Freedom Center Voices
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Heroes of the American Red Cross

In honor of the 139th anniversary of the founding of the Red Cross, I would like to focus this week’s post on the contributions of women to the medical field. Throughout history, women serve as the moral backbone of many social movements in the United States, from both the abolitionist and suffrage movements of the 19th century to the Black Lives Matter and Me Too platforms of today.

The medical field is no exception. The history of the American Red Cross is an inspirational example of women’s contributions to humanity. Their courage, cooperation and perseverance propelled the Red Cross to become one of the most impactful humanitarian organizations in the world.

Clara Barton (1821-1912) founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and was president of the organization until 1904. During the Civil War, like many women she had a deep desire to help the wounded and dying soldiers who were fighting on the battlefields. As a nurse for the Union Army, she risked her life daily to help thousands of men suffering through the trauma of war. This included bringing supplies and support to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the all-African American regiment recruited by Frederick Douglass. Her compassion and dedication during this turbulent time earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Following the Civil War, Barton wanted to continue to help the wounded and dying around the world on a “neutral basis.” To accomplish her goal, she sought advice from friends. After working closely together during the Civil War, Frederick Douglass and Barton formed a close friendship that aided Barton in creating the American Red Cross. Douglass offered Barton helpful advice on how to become a member of the global Red Cross network. While serving as Register of Deeds for the District of Columbia, he signed the original Articles of Incorporation for the American Red Cross—the documents that would legally and officially create the American Red Cross.

Women of color played a major role in the success of the organization as well. Frances Reed Elliott Davis (1883-1965) was the first African American registered nurse in the American Red Cross. Her journey began at the Freedman’s School of Nursing in Washington D.C., where she became the first African American in D.C. to pass the board exam. She helped the family members of WWI soldiers in Chattanooga, TN, and became the director of nurses training at Tuskegee Institute’s John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital.

Frances Reed Elliott Davis (1883-1965)

Frances Reed Elliott Davis (1883-1965)

Ruth Hills Wadsworth (1886-1973) was the first Native American nurse to help allied soldiers in France during WWI. She began her nursing career in El Paso in 1908 at the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing. Following a stint as a private nurse, she decided to join the American Red Cross to help those in war torn Europe. Besides helping the soldiers and doctors in the medical camps, she also spent a considerable amount of time helping women and children traumatized by war. After the war, she moved onto the Mescalero Apache reservation where she dedicated her time to helping the Apache people.

Since its inception, women in the American Red Cross have helped millions of people throughout the world. Today, they serve in every area of the organization. Like the female abolitionists and conductors that came before them, these women continue to display the courage, cooperation and perseverance it takes to make the world a better place for all of us.

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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