Mary Frances Berry is a groundbreaking African American woman. She was the first black woman to head a major research university, was appointed Assistant Secretary of Education by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, and became commissioner and vice chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1980. She is a professor at the University of Pennslvania and remains active in a variety of social and political issues.
Born on February 17, 1938, in Nashville, Tennessee, Mary Frances Berry is the second of the three children of George and Frances Berry. Because of economic hardship and extenuating family circumstances, Mary Frances and her older brother were placed in an orphanage for a time. Throughout her early life, Berry was subjected to poverty and to the cruelty that accompanies racial prejudice. However, she proved to be a determined and resilient child with an innate intellectual ability and curiosity.
Berry persevered in her studies in the segregated schools of Nashville and eventually found a mentor, Minerva Hawkins, one of the black teachers at her high school. At the time, Berry was in the tenth grade, bored with school, and experiencing the usual uncertainties that come with adolescence. Hawkins challenged her to keep learning and growing so that she could one day reach her full potential. While Berry had someone with whom she could discuss academic subjects and her plans for the future, she also had the encouragement and support of her mother, who was determined to provide better opportunities for her children. Berry recalled in Ms. that her mother would say, “You, Mary Frances! You’re smart…. You can think, you can do all the things I would have done if it had been possible for me….You have a responsibility to use your mind, and to go as far as it will take you.” In 1956 Berry succeeded in making herself, her mother, and her mentor proud by graduating with honors from Pearl High School.
Philosophy, history, and chemistry were Berry’s main areas of interest as she began college at Fisk University in Nashville. She later transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. After earning her bachelor of arts degree in 1961, Berry began graduate studies in the department of history at Howard. As a grad student, she sharpened her skills in historical methodology and applied them in researching the black experience and U.S. history. In addition to attending classes and studying, she worked nights in various hospital laboratories to help defray college expenses.
Berry then decided to leave Howard University and continue her graduate studies in history at the University of Michigan. Her chosen area of study was U.S. history with a concentration in constitutional history. Because of her outstanding academic record, Berry was awarded the Civil War Roundtable Fellowship Award in 1965. The next year, with a Ph.D. to her credit, Berry accepted a position as an assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. That same year, she also began studies for a law degree at the University of Michigan Law School. Berry reminisced in Ms. that her mother had always told her, “Be overeducated. If somebody else has a master’s degree, you get a Ph.D. If somebody has that, then you get a law degree too.”
In 1970 she was awarded her J.D. degree and accepted a full-time position as the acting director of the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Maryland. Educational administration suited Berry, and she was eventually named director of Afro-American Studies at the university. This promotion was followed by an appointment to the post of interim chairperson of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences. From 1974 to 1976 she served as provost for this division, thus becoming the highest-ranking black woman on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.
When the Board of Regents at the University of Colorado offered Berry the chancellorship of the university’s Boulder campus in 1976, she accepted and became the first black woman to head a major research university. A year later, she took a leave of absence from her duties at Boulder to accept newly elected U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s invitation to serve in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). As the assistant secretary for Education from 1977 to 1980, Berry again broke new ground: she was the first African American woman to serve as the chief educational officer in the United States.
Appointed to U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
In 1980 President Carter appointed Berry to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan agency that monitors the enforcement of civil rights laws. Along with Berry, he appointed Blandina Cardenas Ramirez and commissioned a massive affirmative action study. In doing so, Carter planted “many seeds … that would later grow to entangle the commission in turmoil under [President Ronald] Reagan” theorized James Reston, Jr., in Rolling Stone. When the affirmative action study was published, it supported setting goals and timetables for correcting historic discrimination of blacks and women, particularly in the workplace.
In his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan had spoken against affirmative action, and the newly published study put him in an uncomfortable position. According to Reston, the Commission on Civil Rights was viewed by Reagan and his staff as “a pocket of renegades that needed to be cleaned out.” Reston continued: “Reagan wanted his own people everywhere, and no agency—regardless of … its historic independence and bipartisanship—escaped attention.” In 1984, Reagan attempted to fire Berry, a registered Independent, along with Democrat Ramirez and another Democratic commissioner.
In the Washington Post, Berry expressed her frustration over Reagan’s attempt to remove members of the commission who disagreed with his viewpoints. She felt that his actions reduced the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from “watchdog of civil rights” to “a lapdog for the administration.” Berry and Ramirez successfully sued Reagan in a federal court and retained their seats on the commission. Berry became known as “the woman the president could not fire.” Joan Barthel wrote in Ms. that Berry’s “convictions [kept] her clinging stubbornly to her outcast’s seat on the commission.” Berry responded: “I tell [my friends] the happiest day of my life was when Reagan fired me…. I was fired because I did what I was supposed to do. His firing me was like giving me an A and saying ‘Go to the head of the class.”‘
Berry returned to Howard University as a professor of history and law in 1980. By 1987, she had accepted the post of Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout the 1980s, she increased her involvement in social activism and published two books, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America and Why ERA Failed: Politics, Women’s Rights, and the Amending Process of the Constitution. Long Memory, co-authored by John Wesley Blassingame, a professor of southern and African American history at Yale, uses autobiographies, poetry, and newspaper stories to document the responses of people of color to oppression and racism in the United States. The text is designed to be used in survey courses on the African American experience.
Why ERA Failed, published in 1986, suggests that the controversial Equal Rights Amendment failed because it lacked the broad consensus it needed at both the national and the local levels. Berry contends that ERA supporters made a mistake by not building state-to-state coalitions of support for the amendment. In addition, she maintains that certain U.S. Supreme Court actions—actions aimed at removing common forms of discrimination throughout the nation—actually worked against the amendment’s passage; according to Berry, the American public became less inclined to support the idea of a sweeping constitutional amendment because judicial measures, no matter how small, were already being taken to curtail discriminatory practices.
Stepped Up Role in Global Activism
Academic analyses comprised only one part of Berry’s professional life. In 1984 she wanted to raise the collective American consciousness on apartheid in South Africa. The issue of South Africa’s government-imposed policy of racial segregation was being discussed by groups throughout the United States, but little was actually being done to end it. Berry felt that it was time to take action. On Thanksgiving Eve of 1984, Berry, TransAfrica head Randall Robinson, and Congressman Walter Fauntroy visited the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., and presented a list of demands: they wanted longtime political prisoner Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress—as well as other anti-apartheid leaders—set free, and they wanted a new South African constitutional conference planned. The three activists vowed that they would wait while the ambassador called Pretoria, the seat of the country’s government, with their demands.
Their actions had been carefully planned for what is traditionally a slow news day. As Berry told Ms., “If you’re going to help people in their struggle, you should be smart for them…. If your demonstration doesn’t get media coverage, you might as well not have it.” The media was indeed there to record Berry, Robinson, and Fauntroy being handcuffed and led away in a paddy wagon. The effect was just what the trio had hoped for. Barthel recounted in Ms.: “Here was not just another campus radical; here was Dr. Mary Frances Berry, a member of the Commission on Civil Rights, a professor of history and law, a member of the bar, a scholar with published books to her credit, with more citations and honorary degrees than her wall could hold. Here was a former Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, once a provost at the University of Maryland, and chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.”
Spearheaded Free South Africa Movement
Berry, Robinson, and Fauntroy were arraigned on Thanksgiving Day and released on their own recognizance. At a press conference the day after Thanksgiving, the trio introduced their Free South Africa Movement (FSAM). At 4:15 p.m. each day thereafter for a full year, a picket line formed at the South African embassy and ended with a press conference that invariably appeared on the evening news. Celebrities and activists such as Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Gloria Steinem, some of the Kennedys, and members of Congress came by to lend support. Altogether Berry was arrested five times, but she never gave up hope. “Progressive politics is not passé,” she told Ms.,”and there are things we can do to make change, and to lay the groundwork for change later on.”
Over the next year, the Free South Africa Movement spread throughout the country. Colleges, universities, and cities were divesting themselves of holdings in companies that operated in South Africa. Eventually Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa and economic sanctions were imposed against the country. Early in 1992, Berry, Robinson, and Fauntroy had reason to rejoice when a referendum approved the dismantlement of apartheid. “Now, we want to see a day when the black violence will end, and one man, one vote will come,” stated Berry in the Washington Post. That day came in the spring of 1994, when Mandela—once a powerless prisoner of apartheid— became the new president in his country’s first free and fair multiracial elections.
Tackled Child Care Issues
Having made an impact on the international front, Berry returned in the 1990s to domestic issues—like employment, pay equity, and the state of the American family. Family issues and women’s rights were the topics of her 1993 book The Politics of Parenthood. Historically, notes Berry, child care was not the sole province of mothers. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the tradition of the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the homemaker was firmly entrenched in American society. When women joined the work force in droves during the 1970s, the notion of women as primary care takers held on. “Even among activists for parental leave,” wrote Berry, “the argument is that the mother needs more help because now women are out in the world. But the evidence from psychologists is that children can be cared for by anyone, so long as it’s good, consistent care.”
Berry told Kenneth Walker in Emerge that the central civil rights message of her book is that until mothers are freed from the primary responsibility of child rearing, they cannot pursue their economic or other destinies. In response to Walker’s statement that many people believe that the high crime rate and increasing number of troubled children is a result of the absence of a good mother, Berry replied, “If my child is bad, it’s because our whole extended family network is not working. To say my child is bad because he doesn’t have a good mother, I mean, it’s like an alien notion, because the mother [alone] is just not responsible.”
Reviewing Berry’s book in the Christian Science Monitor, Laura Van Tuyl stated, “Berry presents a dispassionate history of the women’s movement, day care, and home life, showing the persistent obstacles to economic and political power that have confronted women as a result of society’s definition of them as ‘mothers.’ [She] … attributes the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, the languishing of the women’s movement in the ’80s, and years of bickering over federal parental-leave and child care bills to an unwillingness to rethink gender roles.”
Berry continues in her determined struggle for racial, economic, and gender-based justice. “Basically, I’m an optimist,” she remarked in Ms. “I honestly believe—and I’m sorry, I know this sounds boring—that in the end, truth and justice will prevail…. My mother used to tell me, ‘Remember, sometimes when it seems like you’re losing, you’re winning. It all comes out in the wash.”‘