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bessie Willingham Tift 
Philanthropist.
2024 Inductee, Georgia Women of Achievement

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QUICK FACTS

 

Birth Date

June 30, 1860​

Death Date

December 8,1936​

Induction Year

2024

City, Town, Region

Tifton, GA 

Film Tribute

Bessie Willingham was born June 30, 1860 in Allendale, South Carolina. Bessie Willingham moved with her family to Albany, Georgia when she was five. She attended school in Albany, started her higher education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and transferred to
Monroe Female College in Forsyth, Georgia, graduating in 1878. In 1885, Bessie Willingham married Henry Tift, a wealthy businessman and founder of Tifton, Georgia. Although Henry Tift is well-known as Tifton’s founder and a wealthy benefactor, his role as husband to
Bessie Tift is significant in that Bessie Tift, who had a strong religious faith, was the catalyst for donations to build churches in Tifton and fund educational projects.

 

When Bessie Tift saw a need, she volunteered not only her and her husband’s money, but gave of herself. She impacted the community of Tifton and she was an involved benefactor of Tallulah Falls School, Red Oaks School, and Bessie Tift College. In 1905, Bessie Tift saw a need to help with educational resources in Tifton, GA. She held the first meeting of the Tifton Twentieth Century Library Club (TCLC) in her home. The TCLC is now a part of the Georgia General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) Bessie Tift became an active charter member of the Club and was elected president after the first year of its beginning and remained president for the rest of her life. The TCLC focused on establishing a public library in Tifton.

They gained a clubhouse and this clubhouse became the library for the Tifton community.
Bessie Tift served as a Life Director of the General Federation of Women’s Club (GFWC) of Georgia, an organization currently impacting communities all over the state with 75 local clubs. The purpose is “to carry out charitable service programs, provide leadership
opportunities, and enrich the lives of its members through personal growth.”

 

The GFWC of Georgia established the Tallulah Falls School, a school that operates today. In 1910, Bessie Tift proposed the building of a cottage to house students and faculty at the school. She persuaded her husband to supply the lumber for the building. That building stands today as the GFWC of Georgia State Headquarters. As part of the TCLC, Bessie Tift “adopted” a rural school, Red Oak School in Fulton county. She saw a need to help the teacher and the students at this school. Bessie Tift donated school supplies, clothes and shoes for the students.


Now the GFWC Tifton Women’s Club, this organization remains actively involved in the Tifton community in the following ways: They sponsor college scholarships, read to students in classrooms and at the library, collect food for the local Food Pantry and provide 
school supplies requested by teachers. Bessie Tift also impacted the state through her association with her alma mater, Monroe Female College. The first organized Alumnae 
Association of Monroe Female College began in 1901. Bessie Tift served as the president of the organization. One of the projects the Alumnae Association took on was to purchase books for the library. Bessie Tift gave her own money for this.


The generosity of Bessie Tift and her husband, along with Bessie Tift’s love and devotion for her alma mater, Monroe Female College, literally saved the school from bankruptcy. In 1905, with the enrollment growth of Monroe Female College, the President of the school, Dr. C. 
H. S Jackson made an urgent plea for $37,000 to the Georgia Baptist Convention (with whom Monroe Female College was affiliated). Without $37,000, the school would go bankrupt. Knowing Bessie Tift’s heart for her school, Henry Tift sent a message to Bessie Tift saying she could pledge the money. Bessie Tift then sent a note to the moderator of the Convention pledging the $37,000.

 

Bessie Tift and her husband gave generously to the College. It is estimated they gave over $125,000, in total, amounting to $4 million today. Although Bessie Tift’s and her husband’s monetary gifts were substantial, “mere money could not accurately portray the love and interest she poured out on the institution.” The name of Monroe Female College was changed to Bessie Tift College in 1907.

Two alumnae of Bessie Tift College have received the Georgia Woman of Achievement award: Dr. Leila Denmark (class of 1922), pioneering pediatrician and co-developer of the whooping cough vaccine; Miss Julia Coleman (class of 1908), educator and mentor of 
President Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States.

 

Bessie Tift is the recipient of additional honors and recognition throughout the state. She was a life trustee of the Tallulah Falls School and vice-president of the board of trustees, and she was a charter member and life member of the Southern Baptist Missionary Union Board. She served five years as president of the Tifton Women’s Christian Temperance Union.She also received horticultural recognition when the Bessie Tift camellia was registered in the American Camellia Society in 2015.
 

As a family member of Bessie Tift described, Bessie Tift lived a “quiet life of service.” The generosity, love and devotion to Tifton and to her alma mater, Tift College, identifies Bessie Tift as a Georgia woman of distinction.

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