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Berry, Mary Frances (1938–) - U.S. Constitutional History

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Mary Frances Berry was born on February 17, 1938, in Nashville, Tennessee, of African-American ancestry. She is the daughter of Frances Southall Berry and George Ford Berry. The family’s economic and personal hardships resulted in the placement of Mary and one of her two siblings, George, in an orphanage for a time. The combination of poverty, cruelty, and racism created for Mary what she would later call a life like a “horror story.”

One of Berry’s high school teachers, Minerva Hawkins, saw in Berry a “diamond in the rough,” and she sought to help the young girl reach her potential. As an African American, Hawkins understood Berry’s struggles with racism, and they talked about those struggles and about academic success and planning for the future. As a result of her teacher’s encouragement and her mother’s faith and hard work, Berry pursued her studies. “You have a responsibility to use your mind,” her mother told her, “and to go as far as it will take you.” Mary Frances Berry graduated from high school with honors in 1956.

Berry attended Fisk University and then Howard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1961 and a master’s degree in 1962. She credits professors Rayford W. Logan and Merze Tate with teaching her historical methodology and historiography and pushing her toward becoming a scholar. Berry’s immediate and then lifelong interest would be the black experience in U.S. history. After finishing at Howard, Berry attended the University of Michigan, earning the Ph.D. in 1966. She went on to become an expert on constitutional history and an internationally recognized public servant and civil and human rights activist.

Berry’s first academic appointment was as assistant professor at Central Michigan University. At Central, and then as assistant and associate professor at Eastern Michigan University, Berry also studied for a juris doctor degree at the University of Michigan Law School. She completed her law degree in 1970. Berry took a job as associate professor at the University of Maryland in 1969. While there she served as acting director of Afro-American Studies from 1970 to 1972. From 1972 to 1974 she was director of Afro-American Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 1973 she was appointed chair and then provost of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland, and in 1976 she became chancellor. Berry gained national attention with this appointment; she was the first black woman, and one of only two women, to join the ranks of presidents and chancellors at major research universities in the United States.

From 1980 through 1987 Berry was professor of history and law and senior fellow in the Institute for the Study of Educational Policy at Howard University. In 1987 she was named Geraldine A. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania.

Berry has served in many governmental as well as academic positions. She was assistant secretary for education in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare from 1977 to 1980, the first black woman appointed to this position. Berry created the Graduate and Professional Opportunities Program, augmenting graduate opportunities for racial minorities and white women. She also advocated for raising the budget substantially for educational programs for the disabled. She served under President Jimmy Carter on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. An outspoken advocate for civil rights, Berry was targeted for removal from her position by President Ronald Reagan. She fought the Reagan administration in court, and won. She became known as “the woman the president could not fire.” Berry was also an outspoken opponent of apartheid in South Africa and one of the founders of the Free South Africa Movement. As biographer Genna Rae McNeil puts it, “Berry both writes and makes history.”

The author of seven major books and dozens of scholarly articles, Berry is known internationally for her contributions to U.S. constitutional and black American history. In Military Necessity and Civil Rights Policy: Black Citizenship and the Constitution, 1861–1868 , she argues that black Americans have made the greatest gains in civil rights during times of national crises, when their contributions are both valued and recognized. In Why the ERA Failed , she explores the political, social, and strategic reasons the amendment for women’s equality under the law failed to be passed. In her most recent book, The Politics of Parenthood: Child Care, Women’s Rights, and the Myth of the Good Mother , Berry reviews the social history of the American family and argues that women cannot achieve personal or economic fulfillment unless child care is a shared responsibility.

Berry’s professional academic service includes positions with the Organization of American Historians, the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, and the American Historical Association, for which she served as vice president. She was associate editor of the Journal of Negro History and an honorary member of the Coalition of 100 Black Women and Delta Sigma Theta. Berry has received honorary degrees from more than eighteen colleges and universities, including Howard University, Oberlin College, and DePaul University. She has received numerous civil rights awards, including the Rosa Parks Award, Black Achievement Award from Ebony magazine, and Woman of the Year Award from Ms magazine. One of the most eminent civil and human rights advocates in the United States, Mary Frances Berry is clear about her role: “When it comes to the cause of justice,” she stated, “I take no prisoners and I don’t believe in compromising.”

Berry, Sara S. (1940–) - African History [next] [back] Berry, Leonidas H(1902–1995) - Physician, lecturer, Chronology, Professional Achievements, World Travel, The Flying Black Medics

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