Born this day in 1866: Martha McChesney Berry (1866–1942), educator and philanthropist whose vocational schools became models throughout her home state of Georgia and were recognized around the world.
Martha McChesney Berry was born to an affluent Georgia family shortly after the civil war. Her father died while she was in her early twenties, leaving her a large estate. She used her considerable inheritance to provide education to the poor white mountain children of northern Georgia.
Public education was not common in Georgia at the time, and a chance encounter with three mountain boys in the late 1890s alerted Berry to the effects of educational privation. Using her own money and property, in 1902 she opened the Boys’ Industrial School. By 1909 she added a girls’ school as well, the Martha Berry School for Girls. Pupils, mainly of high-school age, boarded at the schools in order to ensure attendance. To keep operational costs low and to enable poor boys and girls to attend (the school accepted only rural whites), Berry developed a unique work-study program. Students worked two hours each day in exchange for tuition. They learned, through study and work, various agricultural, vocational, and domestic skills. Berry also emphasized a strong Christian, though non-denominational, religious education and demanded from her pupils adherence to a strict moral code.
Applicants overwhelmed the school, which greatly expanded over the years. Berry proved to be not only an innovative educator, but also an extremely effective fund-raiser. She charmed money out of the deep Northern pockets of such figures as Andrew Carnegie, Emily Vanderbilt Hammond, Theodore Roosevelt, and, most especially, Henry Ford. By the time of her death the school included a grammar school and a 4-year college. The schools’ 125 buildings occupied some 35,000 acres of land. Nearly a dozen more schools modeled on the Berry schools were opened by the state. Following her death, the grammar and secondary schools eventually closed, and efforts were focused on further developing the 4-year college, Berry College. Berry College was desegregated in 1964. Much lauded in her own day, Berry continues to be a source of pride for the state of Georgia.