A Story of the Red Cross

by Clara Barton

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Chapter VI: The Sea Island Relief

Chapter VI: The Sea Island Relief from A Story of the Red Cross

This little timely provision, advisedly made, was none too much or none too soon.

On the 28th of August, 1893, a hurricane and tidal wave from the direction of the West Indies swept the coast of South Carolina, covering its entire range of Port Royal Islands, sixteen feet below the sea. These islands had thirty-five thousand inhabitants, mainly negroes. At first, it was thought that all must have perished. Later, it was found that only some four or five thousand had been drowned, and that thirty thousand remained with no earthly possession of home, clothing, or food. The few boats not swept away took them over to the mainland in thousands, and calls went out for help. In this emergency Governor Tillman called for the services of the Red Cross, and my note-book has this passage:

"The next night, in a dark, cheerless September mist, I closed my door behind me for ten months, and with three assistants went to the station to meet Senator Butler."

At Columbia we were joined by Governor Tillman, and thus reinforced proceeded to Beaufort. After due examination the work which had been officially placed with us by the Governor was accepted October 1st, and carried on until the following July.

The submerged lands were drained, three hundred miles of ditches made, a million feet of lumber purchased and houses built, fields and gardens planted with the best seed in the United States, and the work all done by the people themselves. The thousands of boxes of clothing received were distributed among them, and we left them in July, 1894, supplies of vegetables for the city of Beaufort.

Free transportation for supplies continued till about March. No provisions in kind were sent from any source after the first four weeks of public excitement. After this all foodstuffs were purchased in Charleston and distributed as rations. Men were compelled to work on the building of their own homes in order to receive rations.

We found them an industrious, grateful class of people, far above the ordinary grade usually met. They largely owned their little homes, and appreciated instruction in the way of improving them. The tender memory of the childlike confidence and obedience of this ebony-faced population is something that time cannot efface from either us or them.

On the third day after our arrival at Beaufort four middle-aged colored men came to the door of the room we had appropriated as an office, and respectfully asked to see "Miss Clare." They were admitted, and I waited to learn what request they would probably make of me. At length the tallest and evidently the leader, said:

"Miss Clare, we knows you doesn't remember us. But we never fo'gits you. We has all of us got somethin' to show you."

Slipping up a soiled, ragged shirtsleeve, he showed me an ugly scar above the elbow, reaching to the shoulder. "Wagner?" I asked.

"Yes, Miss Clare, and you drissed it for me that night, when I crawled down the beach—'cause my leg was broke too," he replied. "And we was all of us there, and you took care of us all and drissed our wounz. I was with Colonel Shaw, and crawled out of the fote. The oth's nevah got in. But we all got to you, Miss Clare. And now you's got to us. We's talked about you a heap o' times, but we nevah 'spected to see you. We's nevah fo'git it, Miss Clare."

One by one they showed their scars. There was very little clothing to hide them—bullet wound and sabre stroke. The memory, dark and sad, stood out before us all. It was a moment not to be forgotten.

Our purchases consisted of meat, mainly dry sides of pork, and grits, or hominy, for eating. For planting, beside the seed contributed and the nine hundred bushels of Irish potatoes, were eighteen hundred bushels of Northern Flint seed corn.

The contributions of food and clothing had been sent to Beaufort, and were in the warehouses of the perplexed committee of its leading citizens. This had naturally drawn all the inhabitants of the scores of desolated islands for fifty miles to Beaufort, until, it is safe to say, that fifteen to twenty thousand refugees had gathered there, living in its streets and waiting to be fed from day to day.

As the food was there they could not be induced to return to the islands. Indeed, there was more often nothing on the islands to return to. The description given by the heads of families and owners, for they had largely owned their homes, gotten on the old-time plantations "'fo de wah," was this: If all had been swept out to sea and nothing remained, it was described as, "done gone." But if thrown down and parts of the wreck still remained, it was described as "ractified."

A few of the churches, being larger and more strongly built, still remained standing. During the first ten days of our stay it would have been impossible to drive through the principal streets of Beaufort. They were a solid moving mass, crowding as near to the storehouses as possible to get, in spite of the policeman, who kindly held them back.

We sat daily in counsel with the local committee, until seeing that only systematic measures and a decided change could relieve the conditions and render the city safe. We then, on the first of October, decided to accede to the request of the Governor made at first, and take sole charge of the relief.

Our first order was to close every storehouse, both of food and clothing, and inform the people that all distributions would hereafter be made from the islands. It is impossible to convey to the mind of the reader the difficulty of getting into a few intelligent sentences the idea of the means adopted to produce these changes and inaugurate a system that was to restore to active habits of life a body of utterly homeless, demoralized, and ignorant people, equal in numbers to a small new State.

If these little covers would admit the scores of pages of admirably written reports of the officers and helpers on that field, every line replete with interest, that lie here at my hand, it would be an easy and a welcome task to reproduce them entire, and no more than deserved for their faithful and gratuitous labor.

Dr. Egan's report has this passage:

"October 2d came my marching orders. Take charge of the warehouse and stores, make an ]inventory of them, disperse these men, and rid the city of the demoralizing influence of idle people. The doors are closed and the inventory begun."

The local committee had kindly pointed out the most suitable man to take charge of each community, and to him would be consigned the rations to be distributed to each family and person within his charge, for which receipt and distribution he became as responsible as a merchant.

The goods and rations were at once shipped across the bay to them, or taken on their own boats, if so fortunate as to have one left from the storm. It is needless to say that the multitude followed the food.

In three days there were not people enough left in Beaufort, besides its own, to be hired for a "job of work." Then followed the necessity for material to rebuild the "done gone," and to repair the "ractified" homes.

A million feet of pine lumber was purchased of a leading lumber dealer, shipped down the Combahee River, and delivered at the landings on the islands most convenient of access to the points needed. Each man received his lumber by order and receipt, and was under obligation to build his own house. The work was all performed by themselves. A garden was insisted upon. At first this proposition was resisted as impracticable.

"No use, Mistah—no use—'cause de pig eat it all up."

It was suggested that a fence might be made enclosing at least a quarter of an acre about the house to keep "de pig" out, as we should later send, for planting, the best seed to be obtained in the country.

To this moment our thanks go out to the Agricultural Department at Washington, and the great seed houses of all the North, for the generous donations that served to bring once more into self-sustaining relations this destitute and well-disposed people.

The fact that the building of the fence, and its subsequent keeping in strict repair, had some bearing on the weekly issuance of rations, was evidently not without its influence. There were no poor fences and "de pig" did no damage. But there were such gardens, and of such varieties, as those islands had never before seen.

The earliest crop to strive for, beside the gardens, was the Irish potato, which they had never raised. Nine hundred bushels were purchased from Savannah for planting in February. The difficulty of distributing the potatoes lay in the fact that they would be more likely to find their way into the dinner pot than into the ground. To avoid this the court-yard inside our headquarters was appropriated for the purpose of preparing the potatoes for planting.

Some forty women were hired to come over from the islands and cut potatoes for seed—every "eye" of the potato making a sprout—these distributed to them by the peck, like other seed.

I recall a fine, bright morning in May, when I was told that a woman who had come over from St. Helena in the night, waited at the door to see me. I went to the door to find a tall, bright-looking woman in a clean dress, with a basket on her head, which, after salutation, she lowered and held out to me. There was something over a peck of Early Rose potatoes in the basket—in size from a pigeon's to a pullet's egg. The grateful woman could wait no longer for the potatoes to grow larger, but had dug these, and had come ten miles over the sea, in the night, to bring them to me as a first offering of food of her own raising.

If the tears fell on the little gift as I looked and remembered, no one will wonder or criticise. The potatoes were cooked for breakfast, and "Susie Jane" was invited to partake.

The shores of the mainland had not been exempt from the ravages of the storm and in many instances had suffered like the islands. Some thirty miles above Beaufort was a kind of plantation, with a community of sixty or seventy families of colored people. The property was owned by two elderly white ladies who had not returned since driven away by the storm.

This village was reported to us as in need and demoralized, with no head, scant of food, and its "ractified" houses scarcely affording a shelter.

A representative mulatto man came to tell us. An inspection was made and resulted in this man being put in charge to build up the community. Lumber and food were provided and the people set to work under his charge. From time to time word came to us, and after some months the tall representative came again. He had been asked by the people to come and bring their thanks to the Red Cross for "de home, de gard'n, de pig, and de chick'n dey all has now."

The thanks they had emphasized and proved by the heavy basket that Jackson had carefully brought all the forty miles. It contained seventy-one fresh eggs—the gift of seventy-one families—being a contribution of one egg from each family, from the day or two previous to his leaving on his mission.

Domestic gardens were a new feature among these islanders, whose whole attention had been always given to the raising of the renowned "Sea Island Cotton," the pride of the market, and a just distinction to themselves and the worthy planter. The result of this innovation was that, when we left in July, it was nearly as difficult for a pedestrian to make his way on the narrow sidewalks of Beaufort because of piled-up vegetables for sale from the islands, as it had been in October to pass through the streets because of hungry, idle men and women.

Nothing better illustrates the native good heart of these people than their kindly interest in and for each other. Often the young men, without families, would club together and put up a house for some lone old "auntie," who had neither family nor home, and occasionally there seemed to develop among them an active philanthropist. Of this type was Jack Owens, who rebuilt his own "done gone" premises. One day as the field agent was driving out on some inspection he met Jack walking into town.

His decrepit neighbor's house had burned a few weeks before, and Jack had gotten lumber and rebuilt the house himself. In describing the utter devastation, Jack explained that "all de house and de well was burned"—and he had built another house and was coming in on foot "for funituh to funish it." Jack had lost his ox, "a big ox," he said, in the storm, and now he "hadn't any nuther" to plow his ground. He pleaded for another—if it was only "a lil' critter it would grow big"—and it would help him so much.

The appeal was not to be resisted. Dr. Hubbell treasures to this day the satisfaction he felt in procuring something better than the "lil' critter" as reward and encouragement for Jack's active philanthropy.

If any practical woman reading this should try to comprehend what it would be to undertake to clothe and keep clothed thirty thousand human beings for a year, and to do this from the charitable gifts of the people, which gifts had all done more or less service before—often pretty thoroughly "ractified"—this woman will not wonder that sewing societies suggested themselves to us at headquarters.

The women were called together and this suggestion made to them, with the result that an old time "sewing circle" was instituted in every community. Its membership, officers, dues, and regulations were properly established—one-half day in each week devoted by each member to the work in its sewing-rooms, with a woman in charge to prepare it. The clothing was given out to them as received by us. Many a basket came proudly back to show us the difference between "den an' now"—good, strong, firmly mended garments. Ragged coats and pants disappeared from among the men, as no longer "'spectable fo' de fambly."

Provision was also made that the little girls from ten years old should attend and be taught to sew. Many a little dress was selected at headquarters for them to make over or repair.

I wish I could do fitting justice to the band of women volunteers who stood by me through those long months. Some had commenced with me when society belles, years before, now mistresses of their own palatial homes; some had come from under the old historic elms of Boston, and some from the hard-fought fields of Britain's Africa, and wearing the Victoria Cross. To them, white and black were the same, and no toil too hard or too menial.

The money contributed and received for the entire relief of ten months was thirty thousand five hundred, and a few additional dollars and cents which I do not at this moment recall. It aggregated one dollar apiece for the entire maintenance of thirty thousand persons for ten months.

It is the general custom in this part of the country for the merchants to furnish supplies to their patrons, and wait until the gathering of the crops for their pay. But when we left these people at the beginning of their harvest, not one family in twenty-five had contracted a debt for supplies: an experience before unknown in their history.

A report was made and passed into the hands of our legal counsellor, who, on seeing that no change could be truthfully made in it, advised that it be not published, as no one would believe it possible to be done, and we would get only distrust and discredit. Having now come to a pass where distrust and discredit are no longer to be feared by the Red Cross, we ourselves are free to make the statement. But back of the hard facts there is compensation.

A half dozen years later, when our negro protégés of the Sea Islands heard of the disaster that had fallen upon Galveston, they at once gathered for aid and sent in their contributions.

"'Cause dey suffers like we did, and de Red Cross is dar," they said.

Of course I would not permit one dollar of this holy gift to Galveston to go to other than the hands, hard, bony, and black—such as had raised it in their penury. I also wanted it to do more. Searching for the most reliable colored people in the city I found in the superintendent of the colored schools a man who had occupied that place for many years, and who had the respect and confidence of the people of Galveston. I asked him to consult his foremost women teachers, and if it pleased them, to form a society and fit themselves to receive a little money.

In about a week he appeared with his deputation. I informed them that I had a little money from their own people of the Sea Islands for them; that they had been chosen to receive it, because as teachers of the children they would have access to the needs and conditions of the families. I told them that I had desired to do more than merely make a gift for distribution. I wished to plant a tree. I could have given them their peach, which they would eat, enjoy, and throw the pit away. But I wished them to plant the pit, and let it raise other fruit for them, and for that reason I had asked the formation of this society.

They all sat quiet a few moments, the tears were on their faces. At length their president, the school superintendent, spoke for them:

"Miss Barton," he said, "we all appreciate this, and in the name of all I promise you that the pit shall be reverently planted, and I trust the time will come when I can tell you that our tree is not only bearing fruit for ourselves, but for all suffering brethren, as theirs have done for us."

I then handed them the check for $397. The moment seemed sacred when these poor dark figures, struggling toward the light, walked out of my presence. The pit has been successfully planted in Galveston, and we are from time to time informed of its bearing.


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