Joseph Berryman, president of the board of directors of the Legacy Museum, has been with the Museum since its beginning in 1995, when meetings were held at Virginia Seminary. The president often has a slightly mischievous smile on his face, as if he knows something others do not. His sense of humor pops up frequently, and often unexpectedly, in board meetings.
Joe Berryman was born in Elam, Virginia, in 1927. Growing up in a large family prepared him well for interacting with others. In addition to three older sisters and three brothers, his mother also took in six of his first cousins. He and the oldest were always trying to out-do each other, even down to arguing over whose bean row looked the best after weeding. This engendered in him a good competitive spirit at an early age.
Despite having to walk five miles to get there, he liked school from the beginning. His elementary school in Elam had two rooms, one for grades one through four and one for grades five through seven. His favorite subjects were English and geography. He was a good student and once brought fame to his small neighborhood by getting a higher grade than the best student in the class. He was also an athlete. At R.R. Moton High School, he played basketball and was the pitcher of the baseball team. He reports that he “could throw a curve ball, and catch it after it went all the way around the house and back to him.” (If you know him, or ever meet him, you might discreetly inquire as to the validity of this claim.)
After high school, Mr. Berryman joined the Army Air Corps. He signed up for three years, but being put on kitchen duty soon led him to conclude that he had made a big mistake. At the Air Force base in Columbus, Ohio, he was charged with taking care of officers’ quarters, cleaning rooms, and polishing shoes. Later, he went to the Brook Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where he became an occupational specialist, doing the work of a medical technician. During this time, he saw patients suffering with the effects of syphilis and learned only later that, although they thought they were being treated, they were not. As in the Tuskegee experiments, the only purpose was to see what would happen if the illness were left untreated. Although the Army offered him a big reenlistment bonus, he turned it down in order to go to college.
Mr. Berryman attended Virginia State near Petersburg. Although he was older than most of the students, he enjoyed his college years. According to him, his main problem was not academic, but fighting off lady admirers. (If you know him, or ever meet him, you might discreetly also inquire as to the validity of this claim.) While in college, as a result of his active military experience, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the ROTC. Many of the men he had to deal with found it difficult to accept a black lieutenant. After one summer camp, as a small protest, the men threw their weapons on the floor instead of lining them up properly as required. Because Berryman was the quartermaster supply officer, he got blamed for the mess. Another incident occurred when his car broke down in Richmond. While he was trying to decide what to do, a city policeman accused him of hanging out on the street. Apparently, his color was more important to the officer than the ROTC captain’s uniform he was wearing.
After college, he tried various occupations such as working at Sears as an auto mechanic, teaching auto mechanics at Dunbar High School, teaching veterans, and selling life insurance in Baltimore. Just as he got fed up with selling life insurance, he got a phone call from Charlotte, North Carolina, offering him a job teaching auto mechanics at the high school level. Since he had not even made enough money selling insurance to pay his way to Charlotte, he had to borrow transportation money from his sister. One of the things he did with his students was to build a racecar. This was not only fun, but also taught students the difference between a race engine and a standard engine.
Mr. Berryman met his wife, Edith, in 1956. She was a teacher in Campbell County and later became an assistant principal. Since she preferred Campbell County, where she had grown up, he left Charlotte after four years. They have a daughter, who has been living in London, England, for seventeen years, and four grandchildren.
Mr.Berryman eventually became director of vocational education for Campbell County and managed to get the county to build a Vocational Tech Center, of which he became principal. The Vo-Tech Center offered courses in carpentry, brick masonry, food occupations, electronics, commercial clothing, commercial foods, childcare services, and nursing. His dream was for the Center to offer advanced English, science, and math also.
Like all African Americans of his generation, Mr. Berryman was subjected to prejudice, and like others, he learned at an early age to control his anger. His mother always urged him not to be angry, no matter what the circumstances, but it was not always easy to follow his mother’s advice. During the early fifties, while he was still in the Army, a sergeant on the police force of Enterprise, Alabama, saw him drinking out of a “white only” water fountain and addressed him using a no-longer-acceptable term. Much to his own shock, Berryman instinctively reached for his gun, because he felt threatened. His partner, a white officer, stopped him, knowing that he was about to do something he would regret. Both the mayor of the town and the post commander offered him support and apologized.
President Berryman’s life journey is a reminder of the difficulties and injustices of the past. The Legacy Museum is fortunate to have a president with his perspective and experience. Both the man and the Museum help us remember the past in order to have a better future.