Roy DeBerry ’66 speaks at Brandeis University, his alma mater, in 2015 (image credit: Brandeis University)

The Education of an Activist: Roy DeBerry’s Journey from Mississippi to Massachusetts

By Grace Talusan

When Roy DeBerry started his formal education in a one-room schoolhouse in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in the 1950s, he was aware of a certain disconnect. A gap. 

Years later, after leaving home to attend Commonwealth School and then Brandeis University, where he eventually earned a doctorate in political science, DeBerry could not only name this gap as systematic racism and educational inequality, but analyze and theorize its origins and impact. 

DeBerry still remembers that little schoolhouse as having subpar facilities with poor ventilation and lighting. Part of the gap. His teacher, Mr. Boyd, also African American, taught all the subjects—math, science, history, English—to the best of his abilities, but, as DeBerry notes, he was a product of that same underfunded educational system, inadvertently perpetuating its shortcomings. Even now, DeBerry recalls his teacher as “a good man, a compassionate man. One who loved us. He respected us and we respected him. But it was still a segregated system.” 

This segregated school system revealed its priorities through its calendar, designed so students could work the harvest and return to their studies when it was convenient to the crops. “In the agricultural system,” says DeBerry, “Black people did not deserve education because they were needed for labor. So you have a whole system where the mentality is that you are only good for labor. They want to develop your body only so that you can be put to work but don’t bother developing your mind.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, DeBerry’s home state of Mississippi forcefully resisted integration and continued upholding and passing laws that allowed for anti-Black discrimination in education and nearly all aspects of life. 

“You could not integrate. You could not marry. You could not go to a bar or water fountain. You had separate waiting rooms, Black and white,” DeBerry explains. “This was put into law.”

Growing up in that world, DeBerry eventually attended Rosenwald School, which was funded largely through the local Black community’s efforts along with a combination of public and matching funds from the school’s namesake, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck and philanthropist, who worked with Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute to build over five thousand schools for African American children in the rural South. While the physical conditions of the Rosenwald School were better than the one-room schoolhouse, they still lacked the resources of schools serving white children. Textbooks, for example, were the discards from the white schools. “They had been used already for eight or nine years,” DeBerry says. “You could tell this because when you got a book, on that front inside cover were names and dates going back almost a decade.”

Despite their commitment to teaching and encouraging their students, during segregation, his Black teachers were not equipped with the training, materials, and resources that white students enjoyed in their schools. The gaps widened.

Activist Academic

With the constant threat of violence, including lynching, and the daily humiliations inflicited on Black people in a blatantly white supremacist society, challenging that system was enormously risky—life-threatening—for African Americans. And yet, many did, DeBerry among them.

Central to the systemic disenfranchisement of Black people was denying or obstructing their ability to vote. In registering to vote alone, African Americans had to pass tests, pay poll taxes, and reveal their identities to the public, as their names were published in the newspaper. 

In 1964, when DeBerry was sixteen years old, he met Aviva Futorian, a white high school teacher from Chicago who volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during Freedom Summer, when hundreds of mostly white volunteers traveled to Mississippi to help increase African American voter registration. 

DeBerry met Futorian in Freedom School, an all-ages educational project that opened more than forty schools across the state with a curriculum and pedagogy centering the liberation and empowerment of African Americans. Futorian stayed on in Mississippi past that summer to teach a college preparatory class to DeBerry and several other students (all of whom went on to attend college). 

Encouraged by Futorian, DeBerry left Mississippi to attend Commonwealth to bolster his education so that he could move on to college confidently. “I had grown up in the South and knew it was important for me to make a transition to another kind of environment,” he says. “I had to learn different standards and become aware of different rules and things like that. While the earlier school system was loving, compassionate, and respectful, there were technical gaps.”

Commonwealth helped fill the gaps, preparing DeBerry for the rigors of college and a new culture. DeBerry recalls taking a course with the founder and then-head of Commonwealth School, Charles Merrill, remembering him as “very demanding, not only to me but to all students. Merrill wanted you to achieve.”

DeBerry’s early experiences with activism primed him to become a leader after Commonwealth, at Brandeis. In 1969, he and other students in the Brandeis Afro-American Society called for change in the school, including increasing the number of Black faculty and students of color. DeBerry led seventy African American students and other leaders in an occupation of Ford Hall, the central academic building on campus, bringing national attention to the issue on campus. The contingent presented their demands to the administration, occupying the hall for eleven days and negotiating until a majority of their demands were met.

Unspoken Laws

DeBerry was prepared for a Boston mired in its own racial reckoning. “Boston was in the heat of a major movement with the school system during the time,” he says. “The community was resistant to busing and the idea of people of color coming to their schools. I found segregation to be a national phenomenon, not just a Southern phenomenon.” 

DeBerry heeded warnings to stay away from certain sections of Boston but nevertheless was the target of racial profiling. He recounts an incident from his time in college: “I was stopped while driving by a Boston cop, apparently. He asked if I had a knife or a gun. It was a case of mistaken identity. I was taken to jail and eventually people at Brandeis got me out, but it was a dangerous episode. I could have been shot or wrongly convicted. That had never happened to me in the South, but it happened in Boston.” The “progressive” North was not so progressive after all. 

“Institutional racism in the South was in your face. Jim Crow laws were passed around 1880,” DeBerry says. “While you didn't have those laws on the books in Boston, you had to practice them.”

If people ask themselves what one person can do in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems such as anti-Black racism, DeBerry’s work, including his lifelong collaboration with Aviva Futorian, show the transformative power of community activism—and storytelling.

In 1994, thirty years after their first meeting, Futorian and DeBerry began asking the Black citizens in Benton County, Mississippi, about their experiences and involvement in the Civil Rights movement. In 2020, a quarter century later, the testimonies they gathered were published in the book Voices from the Mississippi Hill Country

Voices serves as a platform for its sources, letting them tell their stories in their own voices. Yet, while some of DeBerry’s interviews happened decades ago and describe a time even further in the past, in some ways, they feel lifted from the current moment—Black people recounting both blatant and subtle discrimination, different opportunities, different expectations. The book provides rich context for the legacy of racism in the U.S. and aims to heal the national wound of slavery by bearing witness to the devastation descended from it.

DeBerry discussed the book and his life at a Commonwealth assembly in September of 2020. His virtual talk had students and staff clamoring to ask questions about his lived experiences as a civil rights activist. He offered perspective and the long view of social change as someone deeply devoted and engaged to it. Just one man, telling his story, in his own voice. 

Author and educator Grace Talusan is the recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines and an Artist Fellowship Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is currently the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University. Her first book, The Body Papers, is a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.