Martha Drummer: Missionary to Angola
by Christie R. House
Every now and then I come across an attention-grabbing story in the bound volumes of World Outlook or The Missionary Voice--both predecessors of New World Outlook magazine. Such a story helps me understand that history is never quite what I supposed it was. Martha Drummer's story was captured in World Outlook in 1952 by Florence Hooper, a mission secretary who had been responsible for sending Miss Drummer her monthly pension. Miss Hooper had struck up a correspondence with the retired missionary because Miss Drummer wrote her every month to thank her and acknowledge receipt of the checks.
"Irrepressible" is how Miss Hooper described her. Miss Martha Drummer was an African-American deaconess sent to Angola by the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) in 1906. Even getting to that point had involved a journey of perseverance and determination for Martha. She was born in 1871 in Barnesville, Georgia, the third of eight children. Her father was a local Methodist preacher, but he died of typhoid fever when Martha was 15. Her mother, determined that her children should be well-educated, moved to Griffin, Georgia, where children of former slaves could receive a grade-school education. Martha finished the sixth grade, but because of family finances, she had to leave school in the late 1880s to work for a white family as a domestic servant.
But that role--the lot of so many young African-American women in the US at that time and for many decades to follow--was not Martha Drummer's choice or her fate. Recognizing her intelligence and great potential, her pastor at the Methodist Church in Griffin recommended her to Dr. Wilbur P. Thirkield, president of Clark University in Atlanta, one of Methodism's historic African-American colleges. Founded as Clark College by the Freedman's Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church shortly after the US Civil War, the school is known today as Clark Atlanta University. Because Martha had missed her middle school and high school years, she was admitted to Clark University's preparatory school. There, she studied for four years, catching up. Then she spent an additional four years at Clark University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1901 at age 30. She had excelled in her studies.
Miss Hooper includes a story in her account that reveals something of Martha's character. During the summers of her college years, Martha taught in some of Georgia's small rural schools. She was not on salary but was paid a small amount by the parents of each of her students. Martha remembered one mother who, at the end of a term, said that she had no money and therefore would not be paying for Martha's services. Martha borrowed a wagon and a mule and drove to the family's house--a neat farm, which turned out to be fairly prosperous. Once again, Martha asked for payment, but the student's mother refused. So Martha looked around and said, "Very well, I'll just take a pig or two for pay," grabbed a couple of pigs, and drove off with them in the wagon. The mother ran after her and yelled, "Bring back my pigs! I'll pay you!" She did pay--in full.
Called to Mission
During the course of her studies at Clark University, Martha decided to become a missionary. She felt she was called by God to serve in Africa. Upon graduating from Clark University, she entered the Methodist Women's Training School for Deaconesses in Boston. There, she was certified as a deaconess and then spent three more years in school to become a nurse. By the time she graduated, she was 35.
So in 1906, as a WFMS deaconess, she arrived at the Quessua mission station, located about six miles outside of Malange in what is now the East Angola Conference of The United Methodist Church. At Quessua she joined another African-American WFMS missionary, Miss Susan Collins, a teacher who oversaw the school for girls. A number of white male US missionaries--pastors and teachers--also served at the Quessua mission with their families.
Almost as soon as Martha settled in at Quessua, the mission's residents were overcome by a disease causing a high fever. She was able to save 37 of the 38 seriously ill patients, and from that point on, her reputation was golden. Even the Portuguese officers stationed in Angola--a Portuguese colony at the time--brought their family members to Martha for medical care.
During the dry seasons, Martha would venture out into the villages, accompanied by Dorcas, an Angolan Bible woman, and two Angolan church members who carried the jinrikisha (manually drawn carriage) she rode in to see her patients. When she arrived in a village, she was met by drums, which the chiefs ordered to summon village residents to hear Martha preach. During rainy seasons, when roads became inaccessible, she helped Susan Collins run the orphanage, oversaw the clinic, preached, and taught basic comprehensive health care to her Angolan constituents.
By Florence Hooper's account, Martha Drummer was an accomplished storyteller, known for her ability to touch an audience in Boston as well as she could touch her congregations in Angola. "Say Africa when you pray," she would write to her US supporters, "and then maybe you will think to pray for it oftener." In 1919, when she returned to Boston on furlough, she spoke to a crowded church of white New England Methodists. By the time she finished, the congregation had promised her a cow, medicines, and enough money to build a new clinic. "I have to have a building," she explained to them. "My babies die like flies unless I can protect them from mosquitoes and snakes and such."
"Everything human is human," she wrote to her supporters, as she described the realities of life in Angola. "I have had the joy of seeing the light of redeemed souls on many faces and have had many opportunities to minister to the oppressed and sin-sick. I am greatly encouraged with the outlook of village work at present. The thirst for education is sweeping over the province since the war (WW I), and there seem to be questions on every lip. The people think books might be the answer. I have about 400 Scripture portions to distribute this season, and wish I had more, as it is a means of seed-sowing which brings fruit."
Martha Drummer served for 20 years at the Quessua mission station. In 1926, her health failed, and she returned to Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of 55. She lived to be 66, often bedridden, struggling with a prolonged illness she contracted in Africa. But, as Florence Hooper witnessed, she never lost her spirit or her love for Africa to the very end of her life.
Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine.
Date posted: Mar 08, 2012