I paid Berry College a long overdue visit today. Even though I’m from North Georgia, and passed by Rome often, I failed to visit this campus. Having been raised in the Christian values that were an important part of this school’s original curriculum, it would have been an ideal fit for me. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college, let alone a private institution. Yet, Berry is exactly the experience I dreamed of in my youth.
The campus is every bit as beautiful as Yale, and even more serene. The echo of crickets and birds from the 27,000 surrounding acres provides the soundtrack for this university. It is so beautiful that its inhabitants seem to exude an almost spiritual awareness as they go about their daily business. There is a peacefulness in the air that feels other-worldly. The Founder, Martha Berry, brought about an incredible vision that has sustained itself for over one hundred years.
Berry’s story is eerily similar to my ultimate hero, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Founder of Bethune-Cookman College. Both women dedicated their lives to the education of youth who may not have had a chance otherwise. Each educator befriended America’s early millionaires and yielded the benefits of their donations. More importantly, both leaders garnered the respect of influential Americans who invited them into their social circle for potential patrons. The main difference is one was born into an enslaved family and started her school with $1.50. The other came from a wealthy white family and held the rank to pursue such endeavors.
Stories of women who rose above the social constructs of their era, to help others achieve their dreams, always inspire me. Of course, the more adversity they faced, the more impressive their success. What brought me to Berry today was more than just a general curiosity fueled by a historian’s love for a good story. I applied for a position at Berry a couple of weeks ago that is well-suited for my experience. However, I was somewhat hesitant. Knowing that Berry has long been considered a Christian institution, I did a bit of research. Pleasantly, I discovered their website uses the term “spirituality” instead of “Christianity”. This was important to me as I consider myself the former and have moved away from organized religion in my adulthood. When pursuing a career, it’s important to me to be in an environment where cultural differences are respected and embraced.
Yet, I knew that my anti-racism memoir of 2019 might be too much for a more conservative university to swallow. Allowing various religions into a private institution is still fairly new in the U.S. Adding a “diversity and culture” clause to its website doesn’t overcome the culture of the institution itself. That’s why I was rather surprised at what I found at Berry today. As I drove onto the campus, three of the first eight students I encountered were Black. The following 10 were all White, but the diversity was greater than I thought it would be. This was encouraging. Particularly as I had driven by, not one, but two rebel flags on I-75 as I entered Dalton, Georgia the day before.
My chest had tightened and my stomach clenched as I passed the first and shortly thereafter a second sign of racism waving in the wind. Immediately, I felt I was in the wrong place. It was as if Georgia, with her incredible lush green, rolling hills, was pushing me away instead of opening her arms. But then that southern gentleness, for which we are known, came shining forth. As I walked through the museum dedicated to Martha Berry, both docents were kind, genuine, and helpful. That is the part of the South that is so hard to understand. There is hatred and prejudice alongside loving kindness. The constant contradictions are dizzying. I was born and raised here, but I still don’t know what to do with it all. How do you make an impact in such deeply rooted cultural norms?
I’ve dedicated my life’s work to equality and positive change. Finding a place to stand tall amongst such adversity may be the greatest challenge of all. That is what my heroes managed to do; if they can do it, surely I can too? Where there is a need, there is a solution. We simply must be strong enough to pursue it. These women didn’t give up when times were tough. They found a way.
As I drove off the Berry campus I was met with a farewell message; "I pray that I may leave the world more beautiful than I found it. ~Martha Berry". Me too, Ms. Berry. Me too.” And thanks to your legacy, I am inspired to continue the good fight.