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Meet The Founders: Sarah Murphy

Sarah Murphy's commitment to "make room"

Sarah Murphy, a poised woman in vintage attire, featuring a stylish hat with a veil, elegant glasses, and a brooch, exudes classic charm and grace.

Born in 1892 to Gabriel and Huldah McLendon, former slaves, Sarah was the tenth of 11 children; her mother passed when Sarah was 4 and she became a caregiver for her younger brother James very early in life. Sarah was bright, and by age 12 was earning money for her family by selling mail-order flavorings. Her earnings helped her father and stepmother purchase a 20-acre tract of land.

In an era when African-American women were not encouraged to pursue an education, Sarah had a hunger for knowledge – to learn and to teach. She learned as much as she could in a nearby country school before leaving for Rome to attend an industrial school for blacks. During the summers she traveled Polk County, teaching as many as 100 pupils at a time and helping to establish four schools. Sarah wanted to attend what she called the “big Negro University complex”: Spelman Seminary, later called Spelman College. Her brother James worked on the railroad to help her get there.

Sarah loved Spelman because life for her was so much easier there. With no brothers and sisters to care for, she took advantage of the many opportunities the school offered. However, it seemed that a higher power had plans to interrupt her higher education.

One night she had a vision that she was walking by a canal surrounded by a fence. Someone was digging the ground out from under her as she walked. When she came to a gate, a voice called out to her, “Go through the gate, Sarah, and help your people.” After her vision, Sarah left Spelman and returned home. She started an independent school in Grady, Georgia, where impoverished Black residents paid 50 cents per month for their children’s education.

At age 28, Sarah married Marion “Shug” Murphy. They saved enough money to buy an old five-room house on an acre of land, and Sarah officially opened her school in 1931. Sarah loved the children she taught and her greatest joy was when she gave birth to a daughter named Divinia, an acknowledgement of the divine gift bestowed upon her and Shug.

The trajectory of the Murphy’s school and lives changed dramatically when they took in six children, including a newborn, who were orphaned after their mother died in childbirth. Sarah’s motto – “We’ll make room” – was put to the test as other children began showing up on the doorstep. Soon the Murphys were caring for 18 children on their salary of $25 per month. Eventually, they were providing food, clothing, and shelter for approximately 50 children at once.

Their daughter, Divinia, tragically died in 1934 at the age of 9 of blood poisoning. Sarah Murphy, now known as “Mama Sarah,” applied to incorporate her children’s home shortly after. In 1935, the state charter was granted and the Sarah Divinia Murphy home was born.

In 1946, Sarah Murphy won a $1,000 Good Neighbor award on a national radio show, which provided the resources to add a new building and brought exposure and donations. A wood stove fire destroyed the home in 1950 but, due to widespread generosity and assistance from the community, a new home was built in 1953. Sarah Murphy died a few months later in 1954. Sarah Murphy was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement in 2004.