Sunday, January 13, 2013

Clara Barton: Advocate for Slaves and Freedmen

Part 2 in a series commemorating the birth of Dr. King and the second inauguration of President Obama on January 21. 

Clara Barton is best remembered as the founder of the American Red Cross. Less is known about her role as the first woman to work for the federal government, and her advocacy for African-Americans before, during and after the Civil War.

In 1854 Barton had the distinction of becoming the first woman to work for the federal government when her congressman recommended her for a job with Commissioner Charles Mason in the U.S. Patent Office. 

Barton's trustworthiness and exquisite penmanship made her valuable as a recording clerk where she penned patent applications,  caveats and regulations. Barton thrived in her new job, writing a friend: “My situation is delightfully pleasant. There is nothing in the world connected with it to trouble me and not a single, disagreeable thing to do, and no one to complain of me.”
Barton’s glee was short-lived. After the all-male staff complained that a woman held such a coveted job, Secretary of Interior Robert McClelland arranged to have her demoted to copyist. She continued in that capacity until James Buchanan was elected president four years later and eliminated her job all together. 

Lincoln reinstated Barton when he was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1861. After assuming her new position, Barton was dismayed to learn that the department was controlled by two outspoken southern sympathizers. She reported this to senior management, offering to do the work of the men at no extra pay if they were removed from their jobs. The proposal backfired and only served to alienate her further from the staff.

As a result of Lincoln's election, southern states seceded from the union and on April 12, 1861 the Civil War broke out with the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Four days later the 6th Massachusetts Regiment traveled south to defend the nation's capital, but was attacked by southern sympathizers in Baltimore. They arrived in Washington badly beaten, with fatalities. Barton found the soldiers temporary quarters in the Senate Chamber of the Capitol. From there, she began traveling from battlefield-to-battlefield caring for Union soldiers, and earning the reputation as the "Angel of the Battlefield." 

While in South Carolina in April 1963, she met, and became passionately aware of the plight of freed slaves and black Union soldiers.

"When it came to providing care for black soldiers enlisted in the Union army, Barton stood forth as exceptional. To her they were heroes. 'Whiter blood than theirs has often failed to exhibit traits as high and noble,' as she was to write after witnessing how patiently the black soldier bore his wounds." (Source: "Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity" by David Henry Burton.) 

From 1866-68, Barton delivered more than 200 lectures about her Civil War experiences, sharing the stage with other abolitionists and independent thinkers including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Mark Twain.

Barton's efforts to organize relief programs for Union soldiers ultimately led to her founding the American Red Cross in 1881.

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