The Red Cross

Volunteers for the American Red Cross, founded by Clara Barton in 1881, jumped into action during the 1918-20 influenza pandemic. With more than 10,000 paid employees, 3,600 local chapters, and 8 million volunteers, the Red Cross was the closest thing the United States government had to a rapid-response disaster relief program. It became the most common way men and, especially, women, helped their communities survive influenza. "The work ranged broadly," historian Nancy Bristow writes, "from establishing and provisioning emergency hospitals to driving ambulances, from delivering fresh meals to nursing the sick in their homes, from creating and circulating educational pamphlets to surveying and serving community social needs in the aftermath." Stephen Pace and Katherine Wheatley Hooks are local examples of the Red Cross's activities in Americus, Georgia.

While most Red Cross volunteers were women, men held frequently held paid or unpaid leadership roles. Stephen C. Pace, born in Dawson, Georgia, and educated at Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia School of Law, led the Americus chapter of the Red Cross before serving as a state senator (1923-24) and a U.S. Representative from Georgia (1937-1951). The creation of Souther Field first spurred the local chapter to begin preparing for large numbers of soldiers. "We wish to furnish them every convenience within our power," Pace wrote to the State Director of the Red Cross, "that will insure their health and happiness and desire full instructions concerning our rights and duties in the premises." By the fall, their activities including gathering materials for hospitals in France. For example, the Red Cross asked its chapters to help acquire "1,250,000 bath towels, 2,500,000 hand towels, 1,250,000 handkerchiefs, 125,000 napkins, [and] 1,000,000 sheets."

Stephen Pace, Americus Times-Recorder, September 25, 1917.

Most of the Red Cross volunteers were women. "If men's proper place in 1918 was in the military fighting the war," Bartow writes, "women's [proper place] was, it seemed, in the volunteer forces fighting the pandemic." It was Americus women—not Red Cross Chapter Chairman Pace—who hosted a "Linen Shower" to help find those towels, handkerchiefs, and napkins. Women like Katherine "Kate" Wheatley Hooks hosted and such benefits. Born in 1891 to Margaret and George Wheatley, Kate grew up at 403 Lee Street at the corner of Furlow and Lee Street. She married James D. Hooks in 1912, and the couple lived at 806 Lee Street in 1920.

Katherine Hooks's home, 806 South Lee Street, Google Streetview.

Hooks, Pace, and the Americus Red Cross Chapter found itself in the center of the local response to the influenza pandemic as they transitioned from war aid to pandemic relief in the fall of 1918. They begged for volunteer and paid nurses. "Nurses to aid in the suppression of Spanish influenza and to attend destitute persons who may contract the disease are need by the Americus and Sumter County Red Cross chapter," the Times-Recorder reported. "These nurses are needed for work here in Americus and Sumter county and every woman who is partially skilled in nursing, is asked to register with the chapter here." The Red Cross preferred volunteers, but offered to pay $60 to $75 per month for women with nursing skills who required a salary.

The Local Red Cross chapter also produced masks—and lots of them. As Pace told the Times-Recorder, "the chapter stands ready to make the masks for all who will wear them." When masks became mandatory several days later, Pace announced that the Red Cross would "keep the work rooms open day and night" to satisfy local demand for masks. Yet the Red Cross ran into problems with production and mask-wearing compliance. In a public appeal, Pace asked "that all ladies in Americus without delay, assembly at the Red Cross work rooms" to produce free masks to the public. The chapter set a 48-hour goal of 500 volunteers and 10,000 masks.

The masking effort failed. The chapter could not produce enough masks and residents failed to wear them. "Through the untiring efforts of some fifty or more of our good women the Americus and Sumter County Red Cross Chapter has endeavored to supply the people of Americus with gauze masks, to be worn at the request of the health officers as a precautionary measure against influenza," Pace to the Times-Recorder. "We find that, though thousands have called and have been given masks, only a very limited number are wearing them." The Red Cross continued to give out free gauze fabric and instructions for mask-making at home, but the chapter turned its attention to sick soldiers at Souther Field for the rest of the pandemic.

The Red Cross continued to host fundraisers. Kate Hooks held a Red Cross Bridge Club in late-November at her home on Lee Street. The newspaper reported her home "was bright with glowing fires and the flowers used were chrysanthemums and violets." The Bridge Club, as well as other social events like a ball at Souther Field two days later, indicates that Americus residents did not consistently abide by public health recommendations to avoid crowds. Kate Hooks became sick with influenza and pneumonia in February 1919. She recovered.

For Chairman Pace, the pandemic came to his backyard at 901 South Lee Street when the Americus and Sumter County Hospital opened its wards to influenza patients two weeks after the pandemic reached the city. Black employee shortages at the white-only hospital caused the delay. "The institution is crippled on account of lack of domestic help, being at present in need of a cook and a maid" the Times-Recorder explained, "But as many cases as can be property cared for will be taken at once so as to relieve the situation in Americus homes." When Pace's wife came down with influenza weeks later, the virus entered the home. Pace and his wife both survived.

Americus Times-Recorder, October 27, 1918.

Postcard, ca. 1920, courtesy of Alan Anderson.

Pace and Hooks reflect the shared and varied experiences of men and women volunteering for the Americus Chapter of the American Red Cross during the influenza pandemic. While notions of volunteerism differed along gender lines, the pandemic created risks for all volunteers. The local chapter responded to the crisis in ways that reflected the organization's ongoing attempts to help the U.S. war effort. It was not enough to stop the pandemic.