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HomeMedford NewsClara Barton built New Jersey’s public schools from the ground up

Clara Barton built New Jersey’s public schools from the ground up

Bonnie Goldman presents her story to the Medford Woman’s Club

When Bonnie Goldman puts on her black hat, she isn’t Bonnie Goldman anymore. She  transforms into Clara Barton, a household name with a lesser-known South Jersey history.

Barton is known for founding the American Red Cross, but as Goldman tells students across the region when she portrays Barton, the latter also created the first public school in New Jersey. For Women’s History Month, Goldman told Barton’s story at a Woman’s Club of Medford meeting on March 11.

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“She was told that a woman’s place was in the home,” Goldman explained. “But, she did things that other women never did. She was a pioneer and really broke so many barriers.”

Barton, who grew up in Massachusetts, was invited by a friend to stay in New Jersey. Eventually, she moved to Bordentown, where she was concerned with the number of children spending their days on the street.

“She was shocked to see groups of children lazing around on the streets, drinking and smoking,” Goldman noted. “She said, ‘Kids, why aren’t you in school?’ and they said, ‘I can’t afford school.’”

As a former public-school teacher in Massachusetts, Barton felt that was unacceptable. She visited the equivalent of the board of education and convinced it to let her run a public school.

They gave her a one room schoolhouse in Bordentown and permitted her to teach without pay. In Massachusetts, she fought to be paid as much as her male co-workers: and won. But this was different, Goldman said.

“My favorite quote from her is, ‘I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay,’” Goldman recounted. “It’s really quite amazing, especially during Women’s History Month, considering the fact that we’re still working on that issue.”

Barton opened her school with just six students, but by the end of the year, it had 600 enrollees. She returned to the school board, which recognized her success, and convinced them to build a fully operational school.

The new school was two stories and employed eight teachers. Barton wanted to be the principal, but the position was instead given to a man.

“She was really devastated, very stressed out and, ultimately, because of circumstance, she moved to Washington D.C.,” Goldman explained.

Then, the story that put Barton in the history books for all time: She became the first female federal employee; found herself at a makeshift hospital during the Civil War; and created the Red Cross, first-aid kits and revolutionized medicine.

“She’s an American icon,” Goldman said. “She truly was an amazing woman at a time when she had so much strength.”

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