San Francisco’s Refugee Camps: Conflicting Definitions of Relief
Mentor:Carolyn Vieira-Martinez, Assistant Professor of History, Chapman University
The American Red Cross redefined “relief” in its efforts to help San Francisco’s refugees after the 1906 earthquake. Their new methods profoundly affected the relief camps which were constructed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. At issue here is how the camps provided a test center for the Red Cross to experiment with new methods of providing relief that reflected their Progressive era values. Previously, under the leadership of Red Cross founder Clara Barton, the organization advocated personal involvement and moral evaluation of victims; however, these subjective methods were now considered inefficient. Primary sources, such as contemporary newspapers, journals, and relief documents, demonstrate how relief officials sought to modernize relief methods by providing assistance primarily to skilled workers, people with property, and people who showed promise of becoming self-sufficient. Progressive relief workers believed that they could objectively discriminate between “worthy” and “unworthy” refugees, but ultimately their decisions were still colored by traditional views that poor people were at fault for their own suffering. Furthermore, relief workers’ fear of socialism prevented them from wholly sympathizing with the poor. Refugees who voiced their suffering and demanded control over relief funds were routinely derided in the press as socialists. Thus, it was difficult for refugees to challenge the officials’ Progressive definition of “relief” to provide a more equitable distribution of funds. However, when relief workers and refugees came into contact in the refugee camps from 1906 to 1908, they were able to influence each other’s ideals. Some relief workers became more sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, though others became more prejudiced. Nevertheless, the Progressive leadership considered these methods successful, without consideration of the “unworthy” poor. Ultimately, conflicting definitions of relief after the 1906 earthquake shaped the way relief efforts were practiced in the United States.