Sandra Addelisa Berry was a feminist before modern day feminism was cool. Eventually she evolved into a Sojourner Truth, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem all rolled into one. A native of the Carver Village community of Savannah, Georgia. She was born on September 4, 1944, to parents Howard Berry, Jr. and Lanie Mae Hill. Also, from this union came brothers Dr. Ibrahim Bayan, Clinton and David Berry, and a sister Elva Denise Berry. From her Mother’s later union to James Jones, Jr. came twin brothers Ronald and Donald Jones. She married twice. First to Leon Chaplin, father of her only child Akinwunmi “Aki” Chaplin, a businessman in NOLA. Aki gave her two grandchildren, Aniya Laine Chaplin, and Orion Rahjab Chaplin. She later married the love of her life, Joshua J. “Josh” Walker, who helped her live the life that she chose to live. Berry never met a stranger, had a gift of gab par excellence, and was a giver much more than a receiver. She was a nurturer, a mother, a sister, and friend to anyone who wanted her to be. A few nuggets:
• Berry honed her skills for social and political activism early in life. Later she became a righthand staffer of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Savannah, Inc. (OIC) under the directorship of minister, civil rights leader, and later letter carrier Rev. Harold Baker, pastor of Second Ebenezer Baptist Church in Hitch Village. Founded in Philadelphia in 1964, by Rev. Leon Sullivan, OIC sought to address the need for education and training not available to many Americans living in “deep” poverty. According to Rev. Sullivan, “Family members may remain unemployed or ‘stuck’ in low wage jobs, lacking education and skills needed in an increasingly competitive job market.” The organization provided education and training services through a network of local affiliates. The program offered high quality skill development opportunities that enable economically disadvantaged and unemployed people of all races and backgrounds to become productive, more fulfilled members of society.
• Berry served as Coordinator of the local OIC’s Women In Non-Traditional component. Her dedication and competency drew the attention of President Jimmy Carter appointee Alexis M. Herman, the Director of the U. S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. Berry’s working relationship with Herman led to having three Blacks, elected in an Atlanta regional assembly, as Georgia Delegates to the 1977 Women’s Conference held in Houston, TX: Berry, Martha Massey and Diana Harvey Johnson attended the federally mandated and funded meeting held as part of the observance of the International Women’s Decade. The 1975 International Women’s Year Conference, called by the United Nations and private organizations, met in Mexico City, Mexico. It was expanded in 1975 to the International Women’s Decade.
The Houston conference, in 1977, was an offshoot of the Decade. Elected delegates from the fifty states and six U. S. territories met to make recommendations to President Carter and Congress as how best to eliminate gender discrimination in the U. S. It was the first national meeting ever held to specifically address the concerns of women in the U. S. While the Equal Rights Amendment claimed much of the media coverage, the conference was all encompassing with reference to the advancement of women. After a three-year stint as Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, in the Clinton Administration, the President tagged Alexis Herman to serve as a member of his cabinet as U. S. Secretary of Labor, 1997-2001, the first African American to serve in that position.
• Always a patron of the Arts and Culture, when OIC lost its funding, Berry and her partner Joshua J. Walker, a noted vocalist who sang with chorales of both the Savannah and New Orleans symphonies, and who grew up in the Leon Village community, took the opportunity to turn their attention to another of their passions, supporting Black artists. Berry, her sister friend Doris Liggins and Josh founded the safe space and cultural center which they named The Sojourner Truth House. Located in the mammoth structure at the northwest corner of Abercorn and West 35th Streets, the facility, for a far too short a time, was exactly a part of what was called for in the community. Oh, the art and culture, the live performance, the rap sessions on culture and empowerment, and the professional and moral support and encouragement dispersed. Its doors closed, when, as often, undercapitalization snuffs out dreams.
• Later Berry and Josh saw greater opportunities for them in New Orleans, LA, where they relocated. With a wonderful vision, networking skills, ambition, and fortitude they eventually launched The Neighborhood Gallery, Inc. The Gallery, with a network of supporters including her sister-friends Judy Dixon, Doris Liggins and Shirley Taylor and many others, forever changed a community and its residents. Under their guidance and support, the now Mr. and Mrs. Joshua J. Walker led the TNG to become home to 50 plus visual, performing, creative and literary artists. Berry’s unwavering service and dedication to the arts and artists throughout New Orleans has been honored by the city and state agencies with many prestigious awards. Sandra’s vision and leadership has been the catalyst for the notoriety of many nationally known artists. A cancer survivor, Sandra was sought out to be the spokesperson for the local Chapter of the American Breast Cancer Society. Billboards throughout the city display her message educating this community about breast cancer. The New Orleans Saints football team chose her as their Sweetheart.
* In the dozen or so years before she transitioned, on August 18, 2015, Berry returned to Savannah on a number of special occasions: To serve as a bridesmaid in the wedding of Diana Harvey Johnson to Herman L. Riley; to serve as keynote speaker for Estelle Mannion and the Spirit of Excellence Business Awards Banquet; and to serve as keynote presenter at the Hungry Club Forum of Savannah, Inc.’s Annual Celebration of National Women’s History Month. On October 15, 2015 friends and family held a joyous celebration of life memorial for Berry at the Beach Institute. Serving on the Host Committee were her brother Donald B. Jones, Joan Bynum Newsom, Diana Harvey Johnson, Margaret Shinhoster Carthon, Ronald Wallace, Dr. Otis S. Johnson, Doris Liggins, Carrie Orr, Vaughnette Goode-Walker, Ranowul Jzar, Abu Majeid, Lillian Grant-Baptiste and Morgan Tinsley.
Go Sister, Soul Sister! We will forever recognize your advocacy and service as you take your rest!
Diana Harvey Johnson is president of Pinnacle Communications Corporation. A businesswoman and community developer, she holds a master’s degree in History from the University of Georgia in Athens and served as a Seasonal Historian with the U. S. Dept. of the Interior National Park Service at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Birthplace and the Vanderbilt Mansion both in Hyde Park, NY. She lives in Savannah.