--by Jeffrey J. Crow
Before the 1920s most of North Carolina’s roads were dirt. This meant roads were rough, filled with ruts, and impassable during rainy weather because of the thick mud. When the North Carolina General Assembly of 1921 agreed to issue $50 million in bonds to establish a paved state highway system, the Raleigh Times described it as “primarily the work of Miss Hattie Berry of Chapel Hill, secretary of the State Good Roads Association. . . . To her more than to any one person or groups of persons is due the thanks of those who desire to bring North Carolina out of the mud.” Echoing similar sentiments, the Raleigh News and Observer credited Berry with “one of the most stupendous pieces of legislation in the history of the state. . . . It was her bill in the beginning, and it was her indefatigable work that held the General Assembly in line until it had voted.”
At a time when many people still disliked the idea of women voting, Harriet Morehead Berry took the lead in securing the “most drastic piece of legislation . . . ever . . . attempted,” a program “too idealistic for North Carolina.” Her triumph appeared to come quickly, but it was in fact the culmination of many years of hard work and more than a little pluck.
Harriet Morehead Berry was born in Hillsborough in 1877. She enrolled in the State Normal and Industrial College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in 1893 and graduated with a brilliant record. After teaching for a few years, Berry joined the staff of the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey in 1901. She was appointed secretary of the survey in 1904. Through the efforts of Hattie Berry and of Joseph Hyde Pratt, state geologist, the state’s geological survey energetically promoted the good roads movement in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Good Roads Association was formed in 1902. Coordinating the work of the state geological survey with that of the Good Roads Association, Berry and Pratt worked relentlessly for good roads during the next two decades. The geological survey held road institutes at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which were attended by county commissioners, road engineers, and citizens who recognized the need for a state highway system.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Pratt joined the army and Berry became the acting head of the geological survey and of the Good Roads Association. In Berry’s words, she “had a free hand for the first time” to carry out some of her ideas.
She called a meeting in 1918 to plan a strategy for pushing the necessary legislation for a highway system through the General Assembly. Berry drafted a bill that greatly agitated the 1919 legislative session. Behind the scenes Berry almost single-handedly led the fight. With no stenographer she had to do much of the work herself, burning “the midnight oil practically the whole time,” she later recalled. Many businessmen and politicians, however, opposed the idea of the state’s funding a large-scale road-building business. They especially disliked the heavy debt that would accompany a large bond issuance.
The Good Roads Association’s bill failed to pass in 1919, but Berry had learned a lesson. She immediately set about organizing a statewide, grass-roots campaign to pressure the 1921 legislature to establish a state highway system. During the two-year campaign Berry spoke in eighty-nine counties and traveled some of North Carolina’s worst roads by wagons, buses, and automobiles. Women, as key field workers for the association, recruited new members, spoke in favor of good roads, and distributed propaganda.
She had to be, for by 1920 the campaign for good roads brought her increasingly under attack. A rival good roads organization based in Charlotte opposed the expense involved in Berry’s plan. She wanted all counties to receive the benefit of good roads. This meant using tax money from the larger, wealthier counties to help pay for the maintenance of roads in poorer, rural counties. The Charlotte group favored a small highway system connecting larger cities only. These conflicting views led some members of the Good Roads Association to suggest that a man should administer the campaign for good roads, since it might be too much for a woman. To that notion Miss Hattie icily replied, “The weak shoulders of a woman have for the past fifteen years carried this proposition, and I propose that the weak shoulders of a women should continue to carry it.”
She won her point, but the fight was not over. The new governor, Cameron Morrison of Charlotte, favored the Charlotte faction’s view on good roads. He sought to shield the wealthier counties from heavy expense by recommending that each county pay for half the cost of building and maintaining roads. The Good Roads Association was stunned. Poorer counties could not possibly raise enough tax revenues for such a program. At a dramatic conference with Governor Morrison, Miss Hattie and the good roads supporters confronted the governor. They pointedly reminded him that the Democratic campaign plank of 1920 had called for the state, not the counties, to build roads. After the meeting, Morrison told a reporter that, “If it hadn’t been for that waspish woman, I could have had my way.”
Berry’s success in raising grass-roots support for her roads campaign can be seen in the growth of the Good Roads Association from 272 active members in 1919 to 5,500 in 1921. Over 25,000 names were collected on petitions for good roads and over 195 circular letters had been mailed out in less than two years. By the time the legislature met in 1921 the passage of a state highway system act was a foregone conclusion. During the debate in the assembly Berry was given a desk next to the speaker’s where she answered notes from assemblymen on the floor. The 1921 law contained the principle features of Berry’s program, especially the key factor of state funding.
The good roads movement in North Carolina showed government’s growing ability to deal with social and economic problems too large and complicated for local communities to handle. But in the end it took the determination and dedication of one woman to lead the campaign for good roads. Enemies were made, however. Berry’s successful fight ended in removal from her post with the state Geological and Economic Survey in 1921. Later she returned to public service to help organize credit unions and savings and loan associations across the state before her retirement in 1937. When she died in 1940, few questioned her reputation as North Carolina’s “Mother of Good Roads.”