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Mary Frances Berry

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Mary Berry


Mary Frances Berry Mary Frances Berry interviewed by Julian Bond

University of Michigan, Howard University, University of Michigan Law School, Fisk University

My face is black is true, Black Resistance/White Law, Long memory, Why Era Failed: Politics, The Politics of Parenthood

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Mary Frances Berry (born February 17, 1938) is an American Historian; she is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, and the Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and the former board chair of Pacifica Radio. She is a past president of the Organization of American Historians, the primary professional organization for historians of the United States.


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At Penn, Berry teaches American legal history. Before coming to Penn, Berry was provost of the College of Behavioral and Social Science at University of Maryland, College Park, and chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder. She received Ph.D. and J.D. degrees from the University of Michigan.

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Early life and education

Berry was born on February 17, 1938, in Nashville, Tennessee. She was the second of the three children of George and Frances Berry. Because of economic hardship and family circumstances, she and her older brother were placed in an orphanage for a time.

Berry attended Nashville's segregated schools, graduating with honors from high school and attending Fisk University in Nashville, where her primary interests were philosophy, history, and chemistry. Berry transferred to Howard University, where she received her bachelor's degree. Following this, Berry studied at the University of Michigan, received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.


Berry spent the next six years working at the University of Maryland, eventually becoming interim provost of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences. In 1976, she became chancellor of the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, the first black woman to head a major research university.

In 1977, Berry took a leave of absence from the University of Colorado when President Jimmy Carter named her assistant secretary for education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. According to Paul Glastris, "in one speech, Berry embarrassed the Carter administration by praising major aspects of the education system in communist China,". Glastris offers two other non-contemporaneous examples to bolster his argument that Berry's views did not reflect a "momentary flight of harmless cultural relativism," both from a book Berry co-wrote in 1982 with John Blassingame, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America. In one instance, they described Great Society efforts to promote family planning in black ghettos: "Although most historians have dismissed the claims of Afro-Americans that the United States had inaugurated a campaign of genocide against black people in the 1960s as unfounded, hysterical charges, the threat of genocide was real. It was roughly comparable to the threat faced by Jews in the 1930s." Regarding American blacks' lack of interest in Communism in the 1920s and 1930s, Berry and Blassingame wrote: "Subjected to a massive barrage of propaganda from American news media, few of them knew about Russia's constitutional safeguards for minorities, the extent of equal opportunity, or the equal provision of social services to its citizens."

In 1980, Berry left the Department of Education to return to Howard University as a professor of history and law. Carter appointed her to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, where during her tenure she became involved in legal battles with Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan. When Reagan attempted to remove her from the board, she successfully went to court to keep her seat. She clashed frequently on the commission with the Reagan-appointed chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton, Jr., a fellow African American and a former swimming coach at Howard University. Pendleton tried to move the commission in line with Reagan's social and civil rights views and aroused the ire of liberals and feminists. He served from 1981 until his sudden death in 1988.

In 1984, Berry co-founded the Free South Africa Movement, dedicated to the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. She was one of three prominent Americans arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington the day before Thanksgiving; the timing was deliberate to ensure maximum news exposure.

In 1987, Berry took a tenured chair at the University of Pennsylvania, while continuing to serve on the Civil Rights Commission.

In 1993, Berry book The Politics of Parenthood: Child Care, Women's Rights, and the Myth of the Good Mother was published. Reviewing the 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.' Her heavily footnoted chronology 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." In 1993, Berry was also appointed chair of the Civil Rights Commission by President Bill Clinton, who reappointed her for another term in 1999.

Separately from her work on the Civil Rights Commission, Berry was named chair of the Pacifica Radio Foundation's National Board in June 1997. She drew great controversy from listeners, programmers, and station staff, after she and the board attempted to modify programming in order to expand the listeners of the stations and to attract a more diverse audience. "White male hippies over 50," is how Berry described the programmers and audience of KPFA in Berkeley. Rumors of board actions involving the sale of flagship stations such as KPFA were widely circulated by the programmers. (Unlike most public service stations, Pacifica stations hold valuable high wattage licenses at commercial frequencies in major urban markets including New York City.) In 1999 she and Pacifica's Executive Director Lynn Chadwick fired the station's manager and issued a gag order, threatening to fire anyone else who worked at the station who spoke of their actions. Berry thereafter ordered a lockout of all KPFA personnel, in violation of station union agreements. She then proceeded to demand the imposition of racial preferences across the board at KPFA, though she refused to meet with minority staff people at the station, who mostly disagreed with her actions. Berry's actions in connection with Pacifica Radio brought protest from free speech groups such as the ACLU She subsequently resigned from the Pacifica board.

She continued to serve as chair of the Civil Rights Commission. In 1999, Berry persuaded the Clinton administration to appoint her editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Victoria Wilson, to the commission. In 2001, she and the Democratic board members of the commission barred the seating of Peter Kirsanow, who had been appointed by President George W. Bush to replace Wilson on the commission. Kirsanow sued, claiming Wilson's tenure had expired and he had been validly appointed. Wilson won in federal district court but ultimately lost on appeal in 2002, and the court ordered the seating of Kirsanow. The dispute determined which political party would have a majority of the board's members. Berry left office before the expiration of her term in late 2004 and was succeeded by Gerald A. Reynolds.

In 2009, her ninth book was published, a history of the Civil Rights Commission. Reviewing it in The New York Times, Samuel G. Freedman wrote, "Reviewing a book is not reviewing a life. For her public service on behalf of racial justice, Mary Frances Berry deserves her many accolades. But on the evidence of 'And Justice for All,' she may have been the wrong person to tell a story that obviously matters to her so deeply."

Awards and honors

Berry has received 33 honorary degrees, including an honorary LL.D. from Bates College in 2001. On May 19, 2016, Dr. June Manning Thomas was named the Mary Frances Berry Distinguished University Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.


Mary Frances Berry Wikipedia