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American Red Cross: For 140 years a benefit

By Leesha Faulkner

It’s hard to imagine the American Red Cross celebrates 140 years. And, in some measure, the Red Cross has been there every time you turn around – even here in Lee County.

A little background, first. Clara Barton was 59 years old in 1881 when she organized what would become the American Red Cross. She worked in U.S. government when the Civil War broke out. She realized, after much bandage rolling and support, that soldiers needed help on battlefields, so she went. That’s how she became the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

But it was a trip to Europe after the Civil War, where she learned of the Geneva, Switzerland-based Red Cross and its clarion for international agreements to protect the sick and wounded as a result of war. She became aware of the national societies that gave volunteer aid. She brought home the notion, and for 23 years served as the leader of the American Red Cross.

Mississippi received the benefits of her knowledge and expertise just two years after she created the agency. In April 1883, a deadly tornado struck rural Copiah County, killing many and wounding even more. A series of letters and telegraphs in storage among her papers at the Library of Congress demonstrate her ability to marshal people and resources to the region.

In 1917, about seven years after Barton’s death, Lee County organized its Red Cross chapter. And what a history!

We are familiar with the tornado of 1936. The day after that Palm Sunday in April, the American Red Cross rolled into Tupelo to set up a feeding station at the American Legion. They fed 4,000 people in a single day. Injured people who could not afford hospitalization, but required being sent to a hospital in Memphis or somewhere in Mississippi, didn’t have to worry. The Red Cross paid for those expenses. Those less injured received assistance at a Red Cross First Aid station staffed with four nurses, paid for by Red Cross donations.

Representatives of the state and national Red Cross offices negotiated with railroad companies to establish a “boxcar city” in town that would provide shelter for those without housing. Thirty disaster workers and a building adviser were on hand to assist with the rebuilding.

By November of that year, Lee County had the largest Red Cross enrollment of subscriptions – about 4,000 – for any Mississippi county. The Clarion Ledger chastised Hinds County folk for lagging behind. Hinds County had more people and had benefitted, especially when the Pearl River flooded, to lead the way. But, no, Lee County dug deep.

Three years later about 200 people from 24 counties in North and East Mississippi gathered at the Tupelo Country Club to honor those who had volunteered.

The Northeast Mississippi Chapter of the Red Cross continued its work. Not soon forgotten in more recent history, the response to a fire that took out four apartments in Tupelo in 1996 on Dec. 22, leaving families without anything. The local Red Cross assisted and the volunteer spirit – the Tupelo Spirit – kicked in.

In August 2005 when Katrina wreaked havoc on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Patty Tucker and her volunteers set up cots, meals, telephones, and internet at the BancorpSouth Arena. Three hundred people took solace there. The unit kept the shelter open until October.

In 2014, when a tornado raked through Tupelo, the local chapter helped with volunteer events, joining with the United Way in ensuring recovery efforts ran smoothly.

In 2015, the local Red Cross with approval from national awarded Sihya Smith its highest lifesaving award, acknowledgement of Smith using her skills as a lifeguard – another Red Cross program – to save a 60-year-old woman who had passed out in the pool at the Tupelo Aquatic Center.

Just as recently as two weeks ago, after tornadoes and thunderstorms had ripped through our area, the local chapter’s executive director K.C. Grist began assembling volunteers and going door-to-door to help assess damages and check on those who had remained in their homes.

So, Red Cross, happy anniversary. We in Tupelo are proud of your story. We appreciate the masks your volunteers donated to veterans, the lessons in how to protect ourselves from fire and storm, the first aid courses, and that your volunteers are always there to serve.

Leesha Faulkner is curator of the Oren Dunn City Museum. She may be reached at leesha.faulkner@tupeloms.gov.

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