May 21, 1881 — Clara Barton becomes the president of the American Red Cross, holding their first meeting in Barton’s apartment in Washington D.C. Barton had been working to integrate the U.S. into the Red Cross since 1873, and that long road had finally come to and end as the next chapter of her life in medical service would begin. The meeting was the first of many, and the American Red Cross would be instrumental in providing relief efforts around the country in the decades to come.
The American Red Cross (ARC) was not the first branch of the Red Cross. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been around since 1863, founded by Henry Durant (who would become the first recipient of the Noble Peace Prize). Since then there have been multiple movements in the name of the Red Cross, some bearing the same name and others calling themselves the Red Crescent or the Red Crystal, depending on the country of origin. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) was eventually founded to bring together and organize all of the various versions of the Red Cross (there are currently 190 member National Societies) under a single, official banner while still allowing them the national level of autonomy they have enjoyed in the past.
Clara Barton led a long and full life before she founded the American Red Cross. She had been a teacher in her earlier years, as well as a clerk in D.C.’s U.S. Patent Office where she would be the first clerk to work for the federal government that held equal pay to her male counterparts. Many did not take that lightly.
When the American Civil War broke out, Barton tended to the wounded as a nurse — remember, in the Civil War she would have been tending to people she knew as they returned from the front. She even nursed some of her former students. As she continued through the war, she became more proficient at treating wounds, but also at organizing and managing medical facilities and supplies. Her numerous experiences in the Civil War included getting shot through the fabric of her dress (though missing her), distributing supplies onto the battlefield and working on the front lines, as well as treating soldiers in some of the more famous battles of the war, including Antietam and Fredericksburg.
It was at the close of the Civil War that Barton joined the suffrage and civil rights movements (where she met Frederick Douglass), and would eventually make the first steps toward building the American Red Cross.
Another notable American Red Cross name was Ernest Hemingway. During WWI, he had tried to enlist in the military but was turned down due to poor eyesight, and so he joined the Red Cross instead. There he served as an ambulance driver until he was seriously wounded by indirect fire. Still, he dragged many wounded men to safety despite his injuries and was awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor.
The American Cross has had a long history since then. They have provided disaster relief services, led blood drives across the country (they developed the first non-military blood program in the U.S. in the 40s), and have provided services to our nation’s military time and time again.
Like any major organization, the American Red Cross has not been controversy-free. As a significant, large bureaucracy, they are faced with many of the challenges the VA faces today. They suffered criticisms regarding blood donations from the LGBT community, and many of their volunteers were accused of stealing and committing fraud during Hurricane Katrina. They have tried to combat these criticisms, either by standing by their decisions or restructuring and revamping their systems to better serve those in need as they see fit.
The ARC is not a government funded organization — they make most of their money as a tax-exempt, charity organization that takes donations. They claim that “An average of 91 cents of every dollar the American Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs,” which means salary for staff is included in the approximate 9% of remaining donations.
Featured image: This Oct. 23, 2014 photo shows red-and-white stained glass windows depicting the symbol of the Red Cross in the home where American Red Cross founder Clara Barton lived in Glen Echo, Md., in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 34-room building also housed supplies, staff and offices for the Red Cross. The building is a National Park site and will close indefinitely in early January to repair water damage. The ceiling was covered with cotton muslin material used for bandages. | AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz