Discovering Martha Berry
I have been asked sometimes what the greatest result of my work has been. I would say the greatest result is the lives of the thousands of boys and girls who worked their way through Berry, and today are holding responsible places in the world. No one can estimate the value of education; no one can say where the mind will go, once it is set free. Martha Berry, 1939
Martha Berry was born in 1866 to wealthy parents in the American South. She enjoyed a privileged upbringing and was expected, like many women of her era and position, to marry and to devote her life to family and social obligations. She chose instead to commit her inheritance to founding a school, and she dedicated the majority of her adult life to ensuring its growth and success.
Like many Berry College alumni, I'm familiar with the story of the 'Sunday Lady' and can imagine the curious 'mountain' children Berry described peering into the windows of Possum Trot Church. It's not difficult to envision how interactions with these children, who had little or no access to education, inspired Berry to travel with her pony Roanie throughout the mountains of northwest Georgia to teach, or to envision how this led to the founding of the Berry Schools.
As the schools' director and principal fundraiser, Berry maintained a consistent public persona, and she persisted tirelessly 'on message' in her efforts to secure funding and support. Her professional success is well-documented, and she is often defined by herself and others in terms of her achievements with the schools.
Perhaps for this reason Berry is something of an enigma. Writings in the Martha Berry Collection can appear to preclude study of her personal life, drawing attention instead to her business practices.The collection contains innumerable form letters in which Berry describes the work of the schools and requests support for its educational mission. Other letters detail recipients' gratitude for gifts sent to them by Berry. Whether she sent cotton from the fields, peaches from the groves, jelly jarred by the girls, or hand-woven goods such as afghans or scarves, gifts were products of the schools, sent to highlight the skill and craftsmanship being acquired by Berry students.
Correspondence documenting Berry's tact and tenacity in cultivating relationships with those in positions to support the schools also figures prominently in the collection. Among these writings are letters to and from wealthy benefactors, women's organizations, the media, educators, several different U.S. presidents, government officials, prominent theatrical figures and authors, and a number of early twentieth-century entrepreneurs and pioneers, all of which underscore her business acumen.
Yet in repeated motifs and in subtle details which have materialized across the collection, a more nuanced image of Berry is beginning to surface, one which exposes an elegant synthesis between her personal and professional life.
Writings suggest that she was an astute observer of women's issues. In a letter written in 1918, two years prior to women's suffrage in the United States, Berry responded to a request for permission to sign her name to a State of Georgia "petition for a constitutional amendment granting exemption from taxation for educational endowments" by offering her consent, then adding: "I am sorry that I cannot do anything more for this, but you know that, being a woman, I have no vote."
She refrained from use of a title before her name, adopting the title-free signature Martha Berry (not Miss Martha Berry) as a closing. The Berry Schools' letterhead features the names and roles of board members, but, as in her signature line, gender-specific appellations such as Mr., Miss, and Mrs. are omitted, a practice which diverges from other letterhead conventions of the period (e.g., see Bucknell University 1918, in which female names are marked with the title 'Miss' while male names are printed without titles; see the State of Illinois Daughters of the American Revolution 1926, in which "Mrs." followed by the husband's given and surname is used in every instance save one, in which the individual bears the title "Dr." followed by her given name).
Berry was also among the overwhelming majority of women who supported Herbert Hoover - not Al Smith, who many feared posed a threat to the advancement of women's rights - in the presidential election of 1928. Ever mindful of public perception, she was nonetheless careful to distance her political beliefs from her directorial role, even declining a request for a public endorsement of Hoover made by longtime friend and confidant Emily Vanderbilt Hammond, pointing out that while personally she'd like to acknowledge her stance, "it would not be best for the schools."
In the press as in political matters, Berry fiercely guarded the schools' reputation and endowment prospects. She threatened libel and demanded correction when a Tennessee newspaper published false information about the amount Henry Ford had donated to the schools. She rebuked actress Lucille Laverne, who organized a theatrical fundraiser for the schools, for publicizing the large sum anticipated well before any funds had been secured. In both instances, Berry stressed the detriment of such acts to the schools' ability to raise finances.
Documents intimate that she was competitive and candid. She challenged the aptness of donations made by John D. Rockefeller when he directed financial contributions elsewhere. During World War I, when the school was in danger of losing teachers to the draft, she wrote to the Secretary of War requesting an exemption for one of her staff.
And much correspondence chronicles her sense and sensibility. In 1918, she was contacted by the parents of a soldier who died shortly following his return from the war. The couple wished to donate their son's clothing in hopes that it would be of use to students at the schools. Berry's acceptance of the donation reflects her compassion and her pragmatism, and in an era when war deaths were common and it made little sense to preserve unused items that could be transferred to others in need, the nation's. That she cultivated from the original communication an exchange which led to donation of scholarship funds and ongoing support for the schools from the couple is characteristic.
In 1928 Berry wrote at least eleven letters asking for equipment in support of the schools' new program of study in auto mechanics. While this effort yielded only a few donations, it illustrates a common theme in Berry's professional life: persistence, a trait which threads intimately through her personal life as well. Although her attention seems rarely to have wavered from the mission of the schools, records of her contributions to others reveal her compassion, conviction, and charity.
The demands of her work appear to have been boundless. Countless letters depict appeals for her assistance, and while stories of the waiting list and need to turn children away from the schools have been dismissed as apocryphal, there is strong evidence to substantiate them. It is difficult to imagine the creativity and energy required to persevere in her life's work.
There have been hard times, hard struggles. But I never was a quitter. I hate the word 'quit.'
1930 Founder's Day Speech
She held democracy high among her ideals and transferred this ideology to school policy. For example, although scholarship donors frequently requested to correspond with scholarship recipients, she opposed this practice, expressing concern that selecting "any particular boy or girl as the protégé of a friend outside the schools might take away the feeling of independence and self-respect which is the natural heritage of [the] students."
Berry was a doting aunt, and a steadfast supporter of the education of her nieces and nephews. She was prepared, for example, to subvert (if gently) her nephew Howard's mother when doing so enabled him to remain in school. And she ensured personally that he received "special notice" from school personnel and relatives, though even in this discourse, not missing an opportunity to promote the Berry Schools.
Toward the end of her life, Berry lamented illness that left her hospitalized and "flat on her back". Despite this hardship, she fought to remain engaged in school activities and wrote extensively to family and friends. While these letters are not preserved in every instance, responses to them suggest they bore tones of melancholy. The extended period of illness seems to have weighed on her spirits, and she confided an uncharacteristic sense of defeat in a "blue letter" sent to her niece, Martha Hansen, whose reply is both wistful and wise:
"Everybody's life has a lonely ending, and looking to[o] far ahead is a dangerous and foolish business. I am sure it's not illness alone that makes you feel this way, nor are you alone in the feeling. In Aunt Martha may lie a solution. The way she enjoys a day as it comes, not troubled over the next one, is something to think about."
The ensuing letter ushers the return of Berry's fertile, active mind, complimenting her niece's writing and scheming - always, it seems - to orchestrate her nephew's education.
She had suitors as well as supporters. Clara Ford is said to have called her the "best woman in America." Although Berry's charms were not universally reciprocated, geolocation data is beginning to map the breadth of her influence, and MBDA project staff continue to unearth stories long buried in the archive: the donation of the "family jewels of the man I love" (thanks to Chelsea Risley), the courage of the fathers who enlisted when their sons were killed in the war, and the amusing tale of the missing love birds sent to Berry by Ellen Axson Wilson.
Among the final letters from her "dearest" friend Emily Vanderbilt Hammond is an effort to rouse Berry's spirits. Hammond writes: "you have innumerable children, and I know of no one who is more loved. When I return on April 22, 1942 I hope to see you in Emily Cottage full of health and vigor!" Berry died in February 1942, shortly before the hoped for reunion.
Through our work with MBDA and through your assistance, we continue to refine understanding of the remarkable woman who founded the Berry Schools, reaching beyond her well-crafted public persona to discover Martha Berry.
- Stephanie A. Schlitz, Editor and Project Director