Then and now: Celebrating Black History Month, recognizing African American contributions to Red Cross

By Doug Bardwell, American Red Cross volunteer

February 1, 2021- It’s 1860, and there’s an outcry from voters who can’t accept the results of that year’s election. Abraham Lincoln is declared winner, without carrying a single southern state. Before his inauguration, seven southern states secede from the union, followed by others soon thereafter. Civil war ensues. 

As the Civil War concludes in 1865, Clara Barton is commissioned by Abraham Lincoln to locate missing soldiers. She sends 63,000 letters and locates 22,000 missing men. The American Red Cross is founded 16 years later in 1865 in Washington, D.C., and is still in charge of contacting armed service members.

With Lincoln gone, Reconstruction effectively fails, and thousands of freed slaves are forced to return to the plantations and their former owners. Many stayed along the eastern coastline. In 1893, the country’s largest recorded hurricane hit the coastal islands with a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet and 20-foot waves on top of that, killing up to 3,500 inhabitants, 92% of which were Black.

Clara Barton answered the call to this huge disaster, the biggest to date for the Red Cross. The U.S. Congress refused to provide any aid short of some seeds, tents and a couple deep-draft boats. All the funds to care for 30,000 displaced persons had to come via requests for donations from Clara, who got newspapers to run the story across the entire eastern half of the U.S.

Frances Reed Elliott Davis

Possibly motivated by Clara’s efforts, 10-year-old Frances Reed Elliott Davis was growing up in North Carolina and had lived through that storm. Despite being orphaned, she taught herself to read and write. Wanting to become a nurse, she entered nursing school in 1910. She was the first African American to pass the final board exams in Washington, D.C. Eight years later, she became the first officially recognized African American nurse to be accepted into the Red Cross Nursing Service.

That same year, Red Cross nurses combated the worldwide H1N1 influenza epidemic. With the returning injured troops from World War I, and the raging pandemic, Red Cross volunteers grew to 20 million adults and 11 million junior members. 

Later, in Michigan, Davis helped organize the first training school for African American nurses at the Dunbar Hospital. In the 1940s, Davis established a childcare facility that caught the attention of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped plan for and fund the center.

Mary McLeod Bethune

About this time, Mary McLeod Bethune was serving as an advisor to President Roosevelt. She became the highest ranking African American woman in government when the president named her director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, making her the first African American woman to head a federal agency.

Bethune was one of five committee members who made recommendations on the blood plasma project, the use of African American staff in overseas service clubs, the enrollment of African American nurses, and the representation of African Americans on local and national Red Cross committees and staff departments.

Dr. Jerome Holland

During his time as president of Hampton University in 1964, Dr. Holland became a member of the American Red Cross Board of Governors. He served as a member until he resigned in 1970 to become the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden. He was the second African American to lead a delegation in any European nation.

Dr. Holland was later appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be the chairman of the American Red Cross Board of Governors in 1979, and was the first African American to hold this position. Because of his commitment to the Red Cross, he was appointed again in 1982.

While serving on the board, Dr. Holland showed a passion for blood research and took the lead in consolidating growing laboratory operations for the Red Cross Blood Services program. He also encouraged Red Cross regions to integrate their volunteers so important services could be extended to the entire community, regardless of a person’s ethnicity or background.

We salute them

History has a way of repeating itself. Whether it is a pandemic flu, a giant, slow-moving hurricane or the need to improve blood research, the same needs are still being met by the Red Cross today. To contribute to the cause, click here. To volunteer and do your part to help others in need, click here.

Other African American contributions

To read more about the contributions of other African Americans to the American Red Cross, you might like these articles:

Steve Bullock – Acting President of American Red Cross in 1999

Frederick Douglass – Friend of Clara Barton

Gwen T. Jackson – American Red Cross Board of Governors

Dr. Charles Drew –  Blood Bank Pioneer

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer

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