Despite the significant obstacles she faced as a child in Tennessee, Dr. Mary Frances Berry has established a reputation as one of the most respected educators in the nation, with more accomplishments still on the horizon.
Born February 17, 1938, poverty split her family apart and she and her brother lived as orphans for a time. While attending segregated high schools during the Jim Crow period in the Deep South, Berry excelled academically and entered Fisk University. She then transferred to Howard University, graduating in 1961.
Berry obtained her Ph.D in history at the University of Michigan in 1966, then went on to work as part of the teaching faculty at the University of Maryland. While at Maryland, Berry oversaw the development of an African-American Studies program.
In 1970, she earned her law degree from the University of Michigan and in 1974, was named the University Provost for the University of Maryland. She was the first Black woman to hold that position. In 1976, Berry was named the chancellor of the University of Colorado in Boulder which made her the first Black woman to lead a major research university.
In the early ’80’s, Berry became involved in the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa and co-founded the Free South Africa Movement organization. During this period, she was a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Because of her involvement in peaceful protests, then-President Ronald Reagan tried to fire Berry and disband the Commission. Berry sued Reagan and retained her seat until 1984.
Today, Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of 10 books, which cover a vast variety of topics including racism, the Civil Rights Movement, and President Barack Obama.