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Martha Drummer: A Woman of Courage

by Brenda Wilkinson

General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church

Refer to caption for description of photo
Martha Drummer and Susan Collins with their students, Quique, Angola, early 20th century.

"Say Africa when you pray," implored missionary Martha Drummer in letters written home to America from Angola. An African American assigned to serve in Angola by the Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1906, Drummer served over a span of 20 years, taking only two furloughs in 1913 and 1919 when she returned to America to make a personal appeal for support of the work in which she was involved in West Africa.

The third of eight children of Moses and Charity Drummer, Martha was born March 8, 1871, in Barnesville, Georgia. Her father, a local Methodist preacher, died of typhoid fever when she was 15, leaving her mother as sole supporter of their large farm family. Recognizing the importance of education for Negroes, Martha's mother moved to Griffin, Georgia, where her children could attend school. But by the time Martha completed the sixth grade, she felt compelled to drop out and take a domestic job with a white family in order to help her mother support her siblings.

A young woman of outstanding character and intelligence, she was referred by her pastor to the president of Clark University in Atlanta, who helped facilitate her enrollment in preparatory school in 1893. In a self-portrait written in 1906, Martha described her stay at Clark as a time of financial struggle, but added that she considered it a special privilege to attend college. She wrote:

I always had ambition to learn. So in 1893 I saved a few dollars and entered Clark University. To work my way through I had [to take] care of the president's room, do laundry, and [sew] some of the school's sheets, pillow cases, table cloths, etc. I studied while my mates slept or played and can say I have no regrets of an hour wasted. . . . My wardrobe was limited to the danger point of contacting a cold. I had many embarrassments but had enough courage to press on.

And "press on" Drummer did, refusing to accept defeat. "Every discouragement meant try again," she recalled.

It pleased Martha to inform people that during her years at Clark, she borrowed only $20 from the Freedmen's Bureau (established by the government to assist ex-slaves and their families). It was money that Martha promptly repaid once she completed school and started to earn some income.

Despite hardships endured at Clark, she never complained to her widowed and overburdened mother, who had an invalid daughter to care for among her remaining children at home.

It was while studying at Clark that Martha decided to become a missionary to her "own people in Africa." She attended the Training School for Deaconess in Boston and then spent three years in a nurse-training course.

To appreciate fully the sacrifice of this selfless woman, one has to consider the length of the journey, mode of travel, and conditions under which Martha, an asthmatic, worked in Africa. Upon arrival in Angola, she found poor living arrangements; onslaught of deadly tsetse flies, and limited resources with which to carry out her duties. As in the case of her college years, Martha did not complain but went straight to work. Part of her task was to help Susan Collins run an orphanage for 40 girls.

The daughter of former slaves, Collins traveled to Africa with Bishop Taylor in 1888 and began work in Angola in 1901, teaching school and training girls in home-making skills which they could carry back to their villages. Susan Collins retired in 1922 and died in 1940.

Along with helping Collins to teach and manage the orphanage, Drummer's duties consisted of nursing, preaching, and giving health instructions. Reflecting on her work in a letter dated February 21, 1916, Drummer mused:

Hard, yes hard is the word, if you measure by difficulties. The sailing is everything but smooth, but all these are not to be compared to the joy of writing his new name of love on the hearts of those He died to save. . . . The Lord gave me some rare opportunities for sowing the seed in January. . . . I spoke to over 200, and they listened with interest. . . . The rainy season has cut me off from my little Day School over the river, but I have started one on this side. . . . Pray that I may live the victorious life and have strength for this great work.

A missionary who took care of the whole person, nurturing both the body and the spirit of those she encountered, Martha was once asked how many persons she had converted. Martha replied,"None. I merely lifted up Christ to them and He did the converting and the drawing."

Toward the end of her active service, Martha humbly wrote: "I have had such a simple life there is nothing eventful to write. The Lord's leading has been so gentle I have done nothing but work, watch, pray and trust."

At the time of her death on December 11, 1937, in Atlanta, Georgia, the pioneer crusader requested that her savings be divided between care for her invalid sister and the work in Africa. Accolades came from around the world for Drummer's dedication and for what she accomplished through her endless appeals for the people of Africa.

A final visitor to Martha Drummer's sickbed captured the essence of her philosophy of life and had the foresight to preserve the wisdom and beauty of her words as a passage in a booklet of meditation. Upon seeing some flowers brought to her by the visitor, Drummer exclaimed:

Sweet peas are my favorite flowers. I love their brightness, their variety of color, the graceful curving of their petals, the way they perk their heads and show their faces from within their huge sunbonnets. I love the way they grow. They're not independent, but must have something to cling to. If a support is not supplied, they bend over and send out tendrils to their own leaves and stems, and so become dwarfed and blighted. But if string or branch or wire is supplied, they zealously climb up and up. I am like that. I must constantly cling to a higher power and then I grow. In all parts of my being and experience I have to reach for help. . . . In caring for sweet peas I hate to break those delicate bindings, so I dread to break down any support that another leans upon. I want to help others to grow up and up.

February 10, 2000

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