Early Life

Although there is a copious amount of speculation as to when she was actually born, most people believe that Martha McChesney Berry was born shortly after the culmination of the Civil War on October 7, 1866, in Alabama. She was born into a heavily religious family and by the time she was 16, she had her confirmation at St. Peter's Church (Dickey and Mathis). She came from humble beginnings as her father, Thomas Berry, was a lieutenant in the Mexican War and a captain in the Confederacy Army during the Civil War. Her mother, Frances Margaret Rhea, was the daughter of an Alabamian planter. Martha Berry was of Scot-Irish decent (The New Georgia Encyclopedia) and her ancestor came to the New World during the first half of the 18th century. In 1971, Martha's father Thomas purchased property known as Oak Hill.

Martha's upbringing at Oak Hill was a privileged one. She attended school and was educated by the many visitors hosted at her childhood home. Martha had a very close relationship with her parents. She would sit on her father's lap and listen to him tell countless stories. She may have gotten her will to help the less fortunate because she used to watch Mr. Berry help boys in need. He used to tell her to "help the poor without fail" (Dickey and Mathis). Martha once said "the greatest thing in life was having a father who raised and encouraged me whenever I did anything well and who taught me to love animals, birds, and flowers and take care of every living thing"(Dickey and Mathis). Her mother was a little different and the relationship between Martha and her mother was not as strong as the one with her father. Her mother had a strong love for animals, especially horses. Because of this nurturing instinct, Martha's childhood home was full of many children and various pets (Bonnyman). In addition to having loving and caring parents, Martha also had a wonderful nurse.

During her upbringing at Oak Hill, there were many colored people helping out through the entire household. One of these was affectionately known as Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha was an African American woman who grew up during slavery but became employed at Oak Hill. She was Martha's nurse as a baby and she was favored by Aunt Martha. Martha Berry spent a lot of time with her nurse and became influenced by her love and knowledge of nature. Aunt Martha inspired Miss Berry saying that she "must do something worthwhile" in her life (Dickey and Mathis). Martha Berry had a numerous amount of influential people telling her that she must do something worthwhile throughout her entire childhood. During her childhood, her whole family was very hospitable to people in need which led Miss Berry to have a deep sense of responsibility. This character trait greatly influenced her actions involving Berry College.
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Martha Berry


When Martha Berry was in her mid twenties she built a small school on an eighty-three acre piece of land that was given to her by her father. From there she began to teach Sunday school classes to the local children. ‍‍Possum Trot, which still stands on the Berry College Mountain campus today, is where she taught classes to the children.

Martha's interest in opening a school began when she started telling stories and reading to three mountain children who she happened to pass by her home one Sunday.‍‍ “On this particular Sunday afternoon, I was in a little cabin which I had fitted up as my ‘den’ enjoying, all alone, the freshness and delight of the spring beauty and blossoms by which I was surrounded. I suddenly became aware of three little faces peering in at me from the window” (Dickey and Mathis). These children were shy when she tried to get them to speak. “She tempted them with apples and got them to come in and read them bible stories because they had never heard of them before” (Dickey and Mathis). “She told them to come back the next Sunday and to bring along all of their brothers and sisters” (Dickey and Mathis).

The log cabin where Martha started her school is now called the Original Cabin, and now marks the beginning of Berry Schools and Berry College. The cabin eventually grew more with boys, fathers, mothers, and babies, who sat on chairs, boxes, and basically whatever was available. Martha Berry continued to tell stories from the bible and played a small melodeon, singing hymns to the crowd (Dickey and Mathis). Because many of the people could not read, Berry would say a line from the book of hymns and the group would sing it.

Martha began traveling several miles each week visiting people who lived near her, trying to teach them how to help themselves. She did everything from singing with them, to helping them bury their dead. While she was doing this, she realized that most of the young children of the people she was helping would not be able to attend school. She also saw women that looked twice as old as they really were because of their poor living and working conditions. She became frustrated when she saw this because she felt like there was nothing she could do to help them. Though she was helping to teach their children how to sing and telling them stories, the children were not learning how to read and write, which contributed to the low education rate of the rural south. This is what inspired Martha Berry to start her schools (Ayers).

As the original cabin became too crowded, she decided to construct a one room building, approximately half a mile away, across the Summerville road from the Berry family home on land she had inherited from her father (Dickey and Mathis). Though Martha had no training in the teaching field, she continued to buy books, lumber, and hire labor to construct the cabin (Ayers). The students from her school did the construction work and the county school board provided a teacher for the school five months a year and Berry paid the teacher for an additional month (Dickey and Mathis). As the school became more successful, more rooms were eventually added onto the cabin (Ayers). “The teachers' responsibilities included visiting the peoples' homes and investigating conditions there as well as lending books to the families” (Dickey and Mathis). This cabin is known as Possum Trot.

Initially, the attendance of Martha's students was not very good since many children had to work on their parents' farm. Because of this, Martha decided to teach the children things that would benefit them in their daily lives. She also decided to make the school into a boarding school (Ayers). On January 13, 1902, she started a "boarding facility for boys called Boys’ Industrial School" ‍‍(The New Georgia Encyclopedia), ‍‍which only contained five boards. In 1909, she opened a school for girls. At both of these schools, Martha Berry offered a high school-level education to the boys and girls who were willing to study hard and be focused in their school work as well as working on the school campus. "Her teachings focused on the ‘hands, head, and hearts’ of her students: The ability to learn and work, and the will to do both well. Her motto was and still is the motto of the college, “Not to be ministered unto but to minister” (The New Georgia Encyclopedia).

Late Life

During the last three decades of Martha Berry's life, Martha Berry was still very active in her schools, only now she focused more on finding ways to raise money for the students. She spent much of her time keeping contact with a various group of significant people. For instance, she kept contact with Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and George Arliss. They all knew and supported Martha Berry and her work with the schools. Theodore Roosevelt even said that “Miss Berry is doing the most wonderful piece of citizenship work in America today.” In 1923, Martha Berry was able to raise $130,820 for the Berry Schools and increase the Endowment Fund for the students by $89,000. She erected two new school buildings, a cottage for nine orphans, and started a primary and foundation school. She was also able to start a bird and forest reserve (National Women’s Hall of Fame Application). Martha Berry’s work for the school lead her to receive a countless amount of awards and honors. In 1924, Martha Berry was named a Distinguished Citizen of Georgia, and was awarded the Roosevelt Medal by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925 (Connelly). In 1928, Martha Berry won the Pictorial Review Award. This award had a $5,000 cash prize which ended up being spent on the children at the schools. This award was given to her because they thought she was a woman who had made the most distinctive contribution of the year to the world of letters, arts, science, or the social sciences ("Martha Berry Wins Pictorial Review"). She was also named one of America’s twelve greatest women in 1931. Martha Berry received the Eleanor Van Rensselaer Fairfax Gold Medal as a sign of her patriotism ("Martha Berry Gets Patriotism Medal"). She also received the Second Annual Humanitarian Award from the Variety Clubs of America in 1940 for having the most outstanding achievements for human welfare within 1939 (Connelly). Martha Berry received doctorate degrees from several colleges and universities. She received a doctorate in Law from the University of North Carolina, University of Wisconsin, Duke University, and Bates College. She also received a doctorate in Pedagogy from the University of Georgia, a doctorate in Humanities from Berry College, a doctorate in Public Service from Oglethorpe University and a doctorate in Letters from Oberlin College (Connelly).

Attached to Miss Berry’s will was her written entrustment to the alumni of Berry College about the conservancy of the school that she worked so hard to build up. Martha Berry saw the alumni as a part of Berry that could be trusted to keep Berry in their hearts and continue to support the institution that helped shape them. Martha Berry also created the Daughters of Berry as another means of preserving the traditions of Berry College ("Mrs. Cannon's Story"). One of the leading aspects of Berry College is the lasting pride that its students carry with them even after graduation. An article in The Southern Highlander says that its readers “will be left in no doubt as to the love for The Berry Schools on the part of those who have studied and worked and played on campus” (The Southern Highlander). Miss Berry’s call to alumni requested that they help keep Berry alive for future students and keep the motto of Berry with them throughout life.

During a memorial service held for Martha Berry at the Mount Berry Chapel, one of Martha’s old friends, Dr. Charles M. Proctor, laid down a wreath of flowers at Martha’s memorial – a tradition he carried on for many years after – and made a small speech about the beautiful impact of her friendship: “It is a rare privilege to have had Martha Berry as a friend; even though her friends were legion, each was a privileged personality. Recognizing that every living thought of her physical life was for the good and uplift of humanity, we pause today to pay tribute on the first anniversary of her entrance unto Spiritual Life, to renew our pledge of fidelity and again dedicate our lives to the memory of Martha Berry. I therefore place this wreath with her as a token of the love and memory of all who loved her.” – Dr. Charles M Proctor Feb 2, 1943.

After Martha Berry’s death, she was awarded the 1966 Shining Light Award by the Rome division of the Atlanta Gas Light Company. This award is given to a Georgian who is an inspiration to the lives of others through their service to humanity and is awarded in the form of a gas light. The only other time this award was given posthumously was in 1989, to Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Shining Light Award”). A portrait of Martha Berry was placed in the state capitol in 1979, and Georgia Highway 27 was renamed Martha Berry Highway. Martha Berry had six books written about her including "The Sunday Lady of Possum Trot" and "Miracle in the Mountain and Martha Berry: A Little Woman with A Big Dream."

Works Cited

"Alumni Reminded of Miss Berry's Last Letter." The Southern Highlander (1938 - 53): 10-11. Print.

Ayers, . "Martha Berry: Her Heritage and Her Achievements."Georgia Journal. Print. Berry College Archives. Memorial Library. Berry College.

Bonnyman, Frances Berry. Berry Family Genealogy. UDC Papers. May 16, 1956. TS. Berry College Archives. Memorial Library. Berry College.

Byers, Tracy. "Martha Berry: The Lady of Possum Trot." G.P. Putnam's Sons. New York. 1932.

Connelly, Eugene L., Farmer's Bank Building. Pittsburg: 1924. Print. Berry College Archives. Memorial Library. Berry College.

Dickey, Ouida and Mathis, Doyle. "Berry College: A History." Athens: Univeristy of Georgia P, 2005. Print.

"Martha Berry Gets Patriotism Medal". New York Times: New York City. 1933. Print. Berry College Archives. Memorial Library. Berry College.

"Martha Berry Wins Pictorial Review". New York Herald Tribune: New York. Nov. 1928. Print. Berry College Archives. Memorial Library. Berry College.

"Mrs. Cannon's Story of How the Daughters of Berry Came to be Organized." Jan. 1960. Berry College Archives. Memorial Library. Berry College.

National Women's Hall of Fame Application. Print. Berry College Archives. Memorial Library. Berry College.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Martha Berry (1866-1942)

"Shining Light Award". AGL Resources, Inc. 2012. Web.