|Mary Frances Berry (credit)|
Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, is a leading historian of race, gender and the Constitution in the United States. She is also a public intellectual known both for her archival finds and her ability to marshal them on behalf of public policy. Professor Berry is the author of ten books, with an eleventh in press. Even her earliest work has proven unusually influential.
Mary Frances received her B.A. and M.A. from Howard and her Ph.D. and J.D. from Michigan. Her career has included sojourns in history departments and law schools; academic administration, including a stint as Chancellor of the University of Colorado, Boulder; and public service. She was Assistant Secretary for Education at HEW during the Carter Administration. During the Clinton and Bush II Administrations, she chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, of which she was a member for a quarter-century. She has been President of the Organization of American Historians and Vice President of the American Historical Association. She is the recipient of 34 honorary doctoral degrees from colleges and universities.
We could go on about her scholarship, but we limit ourselves here to saying that the committee was especially taken by her My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (2005), which the Journal of American History likened to a “a paradigm shaping archaeological discovery,” and one which was “destined to become a seminal work in African American history.” Like the rest of her scholarship, writes one reviewer, it “is beautifully written, almost novelistic, and conveys the emotional dimensions of the tragedy of the ex-slaves’ fate.” The book uncovers the role of Callie House, founder of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. Through grass roots organizing, and despite constant harassment from the federal government, which imprisoned her, and resistance from black elites, which wanted no part of her crusade, House created the reparations movement. She was erased from history until Mary Frances found her. Even then, Mary Frances could find “no one who admitted to being related to her,” and in the book’s final chapter, she writes movingly of repeatedly tramping the grounds of Mt. Ararat Cemetery in Nashville with her nephew, “vainly seeking a marker for Callie House.”
Mary Frances’s scholarship and activism is powerfully and cheerfully courageous. “When conservative commentators criticized me for complaining when presidents and other officials refused to enforce civil rights law,” she recounted in her history of the Civil Rights Commission, “I recalled what my best friend, Minerva Hawkins, always said, ‘Remember, Mary Frances, when you’re in the limelight you make a good target.’” After her 1984 arrest in front of the South African Embassy for protesting apartheid, reporters asked Mary Frances why she had braved the conservative mood of the American people. She told them “if Rosa Parks had taken a poll before she sat down on the bus in Montgomery, she’d still be standing up. But she didn’t take a poll. She knew what was necessary to be done, and she did it. So, I didn’t take any polls either.” We salute this remarkable historian, writer and activist.