Red Cross has long history of service

Published 8:20 am Saturday, June 21, 2008

Three dates serve as important parts in the history of the International Red Cross, the American Red Cross, and the Freeborn County chapter.

The first is 1863. That’s the year the Geneva Convention was held which led to the creation of the organization in Switzerland and soon in several other nations. A Swiss banker named Henry Dunant encountered a wartime situation during a visit to north Italy in 1859 and decided to form a neutral organization to care for the sick, wounded and victims of wars and other disasters, both civilian and military.

Because of its place or origin and Switzerland’s famous policy of neutrality, the emblem selected for the new organization was based on the flag of this nation. The Swiss flag is a white cross with a red background; the Red Cross emblem just reverses those symbols.

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The American part of the Red Cross movement was inspired in part by the nation’s Civil War and a former school teacher named Clara Barton who served as a military nurse during an era with crude medical care. She later served as a volunteer front-line nurse during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

Barton’s efforts to create an American branch of the Red Cross movement resulted in President Chester A. Arthur signing a proclamation in 1881 authorizing the formation of the American Red Cross. The U.S. Senate ratified the Geneva Convention the following year. Barton served as the first president of the American Red Cross from 1882 to 1904 and died in 1912.

During those early years, the new Red Cross became involved in providing relief work during the Johnstown, Pa., flood of 1889, famines in Russia and Armenia in 1891 and 1896, and the 1900 hurricane which caused 6,000 deaths in Galveston, Texas.

What really gave the American Red Cross a real boost for membership and services was the nation’s entry into World War I in April 1917. This in turn led to the organization of the Freeborn County Chapter on May 23, 1917. By early 1918 the new chapter became involved in various activities to aid members of the armed forces plus various volunteer programs.

The first real crisis the local Red Cross chapter had to deal with was an influenza epidemic in late 1918. This and a second area flu epidemic in 1920 resulted in the creation of temporary hospitals and the start of a public health program for the county that the Red Cross operated for 11 years.

Unexpected disasters have resulted in quick responses by Red Cross volunteers from this area chapter, plus other chapters and the state organization.

On May 10, 1953, a tornado southeast of Hollandale killed six members of the Aniseto Martinez family. The Red Cross helped the two surviving children of this family plus other victims of this storm.

On April 30, 1967, several tornadoes swept across Freeborn, Steele and Waseca counties in what became known as “Black Sunday.” This storm system destroyed 100 homes and buildings in Albert Lea, caused the deaths of five people in Freeborn County, and had the full involvement of the chapter, plus high school and Lea College students.

Other occasions when the Freeborn County chapter has responded to situations needing immediate response have included people stranded in the city because of blizzards, assistance during the Glenville tornado on May 1, 2001, the Farmland Foods fire on July 8, 2001, and many other disaster situations within the state, in Iowa, and elsewhere in the nation.