Mary Frances Berry has a lot in common with Callie House, the heroine of her book My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Both were born in Nashville. Both decided to dedicate their life’s work to civil rights. Both became the kind of people who, in the words of Berry’s book, “don’t stay out of white folks’ things.”
But the parallels end there, says the author.
“Callie House was a much more courageous woman than I, because her times were very repressive,” says Berry, 67. “She was willing to assert herself even though it was a time of Jim Crow and lynchings and horrible things.”
Until Berry took her on, history had forgotten House, a seamstress born into slavery in 1861 who transgressed race, sex, and class barriers to start a movement to secure pensions for former slaves. The book pieces together House’s life and also broadens the picture to include the African-American experience during Reconstruction and the current fight for reparations.
Some of the work’s best detail appears in the chapter in which House is jailed for her activism: “The prisoners ate in a large, gloomy, cockroach-infested dining room with rows of long wooden tables and benches each seating eight women….Almost all the food contained vermin.”
Berry back-burnered the House project to chair the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Clinton. She picked it up again when the reparations debate reheated in the mid-’90s. Through a decade of difficult research, Berry unearthed the story of House and the first national grass-roots African-American movement.
“Someone at one of my book-tour stops asked me, ‘Did you find all this by going to Google?’” she says. “No indeed! It was a journey; it was exciting; it was a labor of love.”
Berry knows from labor. Her curriculum vitae includes a post as the first female chancellor of a major research university, the University of Colorado at Boulder. And My Face Is Black Is True is Berry’s eighth book; others have been about topics ranging from women’s rights to constitutional law to racism.
Currently a resident of Northwest Washington and a professor of the history of American law at the University of Pennsylvania, Berry—like House—has her own contentious past. President Reagan fired her from the Civil Rights Commission (she had been appointed vice chair by President Carter) for being too critical of his civil-rights policies, so she sued him and was eventually reappointed.
“[Reagan] told the press that I served at his pleasure, and I wasn’t giving him very much pleasure,” says Berry. “I said, ‘What does that mean?’”
These days, past political scuffles aside, Berry is more interested in raising awareness about House and her Ex-Slave Association. She is preparing to speak at a National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America rally on the themes of reparations, Katrina, and race.
But despite her work, she feels pessimistic about the chance for African-Americans to fulfill House’s dream and get reparations for slavery.
“Given that the people who had been slaves couldn’t get reparations, which would have solved the problem then and there, it is unlikely that reparations will be granted,” says Berry. “It’s important to raise the question and have the discussion. I’m puzzled by folks who don’t want the question raised.”—Rachel Beckman
Mary Frances Berry speaks at the National Reparations Forum and Rally at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at Plymouth Congregational Church, 5301 North Capitol St. NE.