Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Family, Teachers, and Community

BOND: Now, who are the people who’ve been most significant in your development, beginning with your folks, your family? Who helped you become you?

BERRY: Well, in my own family, my mother was the youngest of 13 children and no one in that family graduated from high school and no one graduated from the 8th grade until my mother came along, yet the children of all of those relatives all went to college except one who wouldn’t go, no matter what you did. You could whip him with a stick and he still wouldn’t go, but everybody else went and everybody else graduated, okay, and everybody else had some kind of professional job after that. An enormous change from what had happened.

My own mother who graduated from the 8th grade would’ve been able to go to high school and wanted to go high school but there was no high school for Negroes and so she didn’t go to high school. She probably could’ve been president of the United States or something, she’s smart enough. So that for my own family, you had the example when I came along of other people who were taking advantage of opportunities and it was sort of assumed that I would, too, and my brothers would, too. I mean, everybody assumed you would do things that as my mother put it, years before no one would’ve assumed that you could do any of those things but now you do them.

And then my high school teacher, the same one I had mentioned in connection with the case, was always an inspiration to me. She opened up my eyes to what was available in the world beyond the narrower world that I knew of Nashville and always supported me and encouraged me. Then I had other professors, or teachers mainly, who helped me throughout my life and finally when I got to Howard, I had a professor named Elsie Lewis who was enormously helpful to me. Rayford Logan, a distinguished historian, and then I went to Michigan to graduate school, a white professor—there weren’t any black ones in the department—named Bill Leslie took me under his wing and they told me I was the first black student who had ever come there and stayed. That there had been one years ago but nobody remembered who it was and he led me into the field of legal and constitutional history which I worked in and was very protective and very helpful so there were teachers mainly who helped me along the way.

BOND: What about people in the larger community outside of family and school? What about people in the Nashville community? Were there role models or people who were helpful in pushing you along?

BERRY: Well, aside from teachers and members of my own family, I don’t recall any particular persons who took an interest and who did things, but there were a lot— a whole variety of teachers who were the leaders in the community, by the way, the professors and teachers were the leaders in the community.

BOND: I was thinking about somebody like Z. Alexander Looby who was a pioneering Nashville lawyer and the kind of figure I think would be pointed out to a young person to see that man. He’s a lawyer.

BERRY: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, I knew Looby and knew all about his grand reputation and the things that he did and admired him very much but I didn’t have—

BOND: No personal connection with him?