Mary Frances Berry, Chair of the U.S. Commission

on Civil Rights, to Receive Frederick Douglass Award

Kojo Nnamdi is Master of Ceremonies for Oct. 13 Ceremony


Adelphi, MD (October 8, 2004)Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, will receive the University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents' ninth annual Frederick Douglass Award. Board Chair Clifford Kendall and USM Chancellor William E. Kirwan will present the award to Berry at a ceremony to be held at 6 pm Wednesday, October 13, at The Inn and Conference Center, University of Maryland University College in Adelphi. The ceremony is free and open to the public.

The Board of Regents established the Frederick Douglass Award in 1995 to honor individuals "who have displayed an extraordinary and active commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity exemplified in the life of Frederick Douglass."

"Dr. Berry richly deserves this honor," said Kendall. "Through word and deed, she has displayed a strong commitment to the ideals of fairness, justice, and inclusion."

Growing up poor in Nashville, Mary Frances Berry learned early to fight for survival. Her difficult childhood experiences helped to shape her into a powerful civil rights advocate, well known for her tenacity, candor, and willingness to fight hard for what she believes is right. Her own words explain her approach to civil rights best: "When it comes to the cause of justice, I take no prisoners and I don't believe in compromise."

After graduating from segregated public schools in Nashville, Berry earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Howard University, a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan, and the juris doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School. She is a member of the Bar of the District of Columbia.

Berry has held faculty appointments at Central Michigan University; Eastern Michigan University; the University of Maryland, College Park; the University of Michigan; and Howard University. Her previous administrative positions include chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder and provost of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park. Currently, she is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mary Frances Berry first entered public service as the assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, serving in this position from 1977 to 1980. During this time, she also served briefly as acting U.S. Commissioner on Education. She was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1980, serving as vice chair from 1980-82 and chair since 1993.

Berry has been awarded 31 honorary doctoral degrees and numerous awards for her public service and scholarly activities, including the NAACP's Roy Wilkins Award, the Rosa Parks Award of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Ebony Magazine Black Achievement Award. She is also a prolific author, writing a number of articles and essays as well as seven books.

"Mary Frances Berry's career reflects a deep commitment to the twin challenges of education and civil rights," said Chancellor Kirwan. "As a scholar, she has studied, taught and written about the black experience in America and the history of racism and sexism. As an attorney and public servant, she remains a strong and uncompromising voice for justice as the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights."

The previous Douglass Award recipients are:

  • the Honorable Parren J. Mitchell, a member of Congress for the 7th District of Maryland (1996);
  • Benjamin Quarles, scholar at Morgan State University (1997, posthumously);
  • Samuel Lacy Jr., sports writer for the Baltimore Afro-American (1998);
  • the Honorable Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1999);
  • the late Beatrice "Bea" Gaddy, advocate for the poor and homeless and a member of the Baltimore City Council (2000);
  • Dorothy Irene Height, chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women (2001);
  • David C. Driskell, artist, art historian, and distinguished university professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park (2002), and;
  • Donald E. Wilson, dean, University of Maryland School of Medicine and the nation's first African-American dean of a predominantly white medical school (2003).

A statesman, publisher, and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass was the leading spokesman of American blacks in the 1800s. Born a slave in 1817 in Tuckahoe, MD, he devoted his life to the abolition of slavery and the fight for black rights. He then began a series of protests against segregation, and published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in 1845.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Douglass helped recruit blacks for the Union Army. He discussed the immorality of slavery with President Abraham Lincoln on several occasions. Finally, he wrote two expanded versions of his autobiography -- My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He died in 1895.

Kojo Nnamdi of WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show will serve as master of ceremonies for the Douglass Award Ceremony. Speakers include Sharon Harley, chair and associate professor of the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Rhonda Y. Williams, associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University. Marymal Holmes will lead the Bowie State University Choir in a musical tribute.

Contact: Mary Carroll-Mason

Phone: 301/445-2756