Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Leadership Development: Standing Up for Self

BOND: Do you remember a first time in your life when you thought of yourself as a leader and I know you rejected the notion, but work with me here. Do you know the first time in your life in high school or grade school or college, university, first job, that you said to yourself I’m a leader, people pay attention to what I do and say?

BERRY: Well, when I had this job in the hospital and I was supposed to be learning how to do laboratory work, medical laboratory work, and that’s what I’d signed on for and they decided that they needed someone to work in the cleaning area to clean needles. In those days, they squirted disinfectant through needles to clean them and they had nobody to do that. Somebody had left or something, so they looked around to see who they could get and I was the only black person there, so they said you go down there and clean out those— From now on, you’re going to be a needle cleaner and I wouldn’t go. I said that’s not what I was brought on for and I don’t see my life as being a needle cleaner and if I learn how to work in the lab which is what I signed on for, I can get a better job and move up and not being a needle— So I’m not going and I wouldn’t do it, so they kept trying every way to get me to do this.

BOND: Did they come close to firing you?

BERRY: Yes. And then I noticed— Finally they let me go back to the lab when I just— They found another person, but I noticed that other people who worked there, other white people who worked there, and some of the black people who had jobs that were more menial, they began to come to me to say, you know, you’re right about that. They should— The only reason why they did it to you, you’ve been here longer, you came here to learn how to do this and now they’re going to make you go down there and clean needles and they seemed to think that that was an important thing to do and an important step that might change some things around there for them, too, and that’s the first time I ever thought about it.

BOND: So you became an example for the others?

BERRY: It seemed that way, yes.