Berry, Mary Frances

Berry, Mary Frances (b. February 17, 1938, Nashville, Tenn.), American historian, civil rights activist, attorney, and the first African American woman to chair the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

The second of three children born to George and Frances Berry, Mary Frances Berry was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and experienced the racial discrimination of the segregated South. Economic struggle led her parents to send her and her older brother George Jr. to an orphanage temporarily, a period Berry likened to a "horror story."

Despite her considerable intellect, Berry remained an indifferent student until gaining the attention and support of Minerva Hawkins, one of only three black teachers at Nashville's segregated Pearl High School. According to Berry, Hawkins exhorted Berry to develop her intellectual gifts, telling her that she could do "all the things I would have done if it had been possible for me." Thus heartened, Berry applied herself to her studies, and gained a deep interest in a broad range of subjects. She attended Nashville's Fisk University, studying philosophy, history, and chemistry before transferring to Howard University in Washington, D.C.. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1961, and a master's degree in history in 1962. She then pursued a Ph.D. degree at the University of Michigan, focusing on United States history, with a concentration on constitutional history.

After receiving a Ph.D. in 1966, Berry taught history at Central Michigan University in, while simultaneously attending the University of Michigan's law school. She later taught at Eastern Michigan University, and later at the University of Maryland. After earning her law degree, Berry accepted a professorship at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan both full-time positions.

Berry quickly established her reputation as a first-rate scholar, producing such books as Black Resistance/White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism (1971), in which she explored how racism influenced interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, Military Necessity and Civil Rights Policy: Black Citizenship and the Constitution, 1861-1868 (1977), Stability, Security, and Continuity: Mr. Justice Burton and Decision-Making in the Supreme Court, 1945-1958 (1978), Long Memory: The Black Experience in America (coauthored with John W. Blassingame 1982), Why ERA Failed: (1986), and The Politics of Parenthood: Child Care, Women's Rights, and the Myth of the Good Mother (1993). She added to her scholarly reputation by publishing regularly in scholarly journals.

Berry also enjoyed success as an educational administrator, first at the University of Maryland as its director of Afro-American Studies, and later, as interim chairperson and provost of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences. In 1976, Berry became chancellor of the University of Colorado, the first African American woman to hold that post at a major research university. In 1980, she accepted a professorship at Howard University, and, later, at the University of Pennsylvania, where she became the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of Social Thought and Professor of History.

Berry's most visible contribution has been in the arena of civil rights. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Berry to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent agency that was created in 1957 to investigate discrimination. Berry's political views differed from those of President Ronald Reagan, who sought to fire her in 1984. Her characterization of Reagan's intentions in the press that Reagan wanted to transform the agency from a "watchdog of civil rights" to a "lapdog for the administration," summed up the pair's differences. It also signaled her willingness to fight the president, which she did, in court, successfully blocking Reagan's attempt to unseat her. She continued to serve on the commission, and in 1992 was named the commission's chair by President Bill Clinton in 1992.

Berry has also participated in other civil rights activism, most notably as a founding member of the Free South Africa Movement, which gained notoriety on Thanksgiving 1984 by protesting apartheid at the South African Embassy.


Contributed By:
Peter Glenshaw