History Department
History Department

Daina Ramey Berry: Public Historian in Focus

Thu, March 24, 2016
Daina Ramey Berry: Public Historian in Focus
Prof. Daina Ramey Berry

Story by J. R. Jones, Ph.D. Candidate in History, University of Texas at Austin

Daina Ramey Berry, Associate Professor in History and African Diaspora Studies and the George W. Littlefield Fellow in American History, continues her ground-breaking work as a prolific public historian and academic. A scholar whose work examines the intersections of gender, economics, and the history of American slavery, Dr. Berry combines extensive public history advocacy and student mentorship with rigorous scholarship.

As a public historian, Berry has contributed to multiple programs, including the History Channel, NPR, NBC, and PBS, as well as UT History's Not Even Past site and 15-Minute History podcast. Demonstrating the truism that the personal is political, Berry's work on the history of African American slavery has enabled her to aid the descendants of slaves in finding their family roots. Last year Berry appeared on the TLC program “Who Do You Think You Are?," helping actress Alfre Woodard trace her paternal ancestry through Georgia and Louisiana. Earlier, in April 2010, Prof. Berry appeared on the same program, helping Academy Award nominated film-maker Spike Lee trace his genealogical origins (the episode is no longer available on the web, but a description can be found here.) On April 3rd, at 9:00pm, she will make her third appearance on the show to trace the genealogy of talkshow host, actress, and comedian Aisha Tyler.

Berry contributed to Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s 2013 six-part PBS series, "The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross," the first documentary film since 1968 to "chronicle the full sweep of African-American history, from the origins of slavery on the African continent through more than four centuries of remarkable historic events up to the present day - when America has a black president yet remains a nation divided by race." The show received an Emmy and a Peabody award. More recently, her op-eds have contributed to the national dialogue on slavery and the Black Lives Matter movement (see The Conversation Oct-21-2014, and The American Prospect, Dec-5-2014).

Last year Berry's expertise was called upon here at UT. Asked to serve on the task force evaluating the continued presence of a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis on campus, Berry explained the role of historians in providing context for both the past and the present. As she stated in Inside Higher Ed: “So what is the historian’s role in this moment, I ask again? The historian’s role is to provide the context in which people can understand the very complex issues of the past and the present.”

Hand in hand with her public historian role, Dr. Berry believes strongly in the value of mentorship programs. She has been instrumental in organizing conferences and leading projects to train the next generation of leaders, particularly for under-represented populations in the academy like minorities and women. This past fall she helped bring the OpEd Project - Public Voices Thought Leadership fellowship program to UT Austin, "in an effort to dramatically increase the influence of women and minority thought leaders and to ensure their ideas shape the important conversations of our age." In March of last year, Dr. Berry co-hosted a symposium at Michigan State University, Cross-Generational Dialogues in Black Women's History, which was intended "as a living legends tribute" to eleven historians who "have mentored and trained generations of students," with the objective "to create a model for historians who wish to honor their mentors and to encourage junior scholars to follow in their footsteps."

Later, in April, Berry co-authored an essay with History doctoral candidate Jermaine Thibodeaux (info), which he presented at the Colored Conventions Symposium at the University of Delaware. The symposium aimed to focus scholarly attention on the efforts of mid-nineteenth century African Americans to organize on behalf of political, legal, and labor equality (1830-1880). This gathering of scholars was the first to take the convention movement as its focus, posing "questions about the ways in which understandings of nineteenth-century campaigns for racial justice shift when the decades-long colored convention movement stands alongside abolition and the underground railroad as one of the principal ways in which we conceive of early racial and justice movements." At the symposium, "organizers and presenters highlighted the crucial work done by Black women, who have been largely erased from convention minutes, in the broader organizational and social networks that made these conventions possible."

In addition to her roles as a mentor and public historian, Dr. Berry's scholarly writing has garnered significant accolades. Dr. Berry was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Faculty Fellowship (2014). The NEH grant will contribute funds to one of her current book projects, "The Price for Their Pound of Flesh," an exploration of public and private market transactions and appraisals of enslaved people in the American domestic market from preconception to postmortem. Her recent Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2012), co-edited with Dr. Deleso A. Alford, was named to the 2013 Outstanding Reference Sources List by The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association. An "authoritative account of the daily lives of enslaved women in the United States, from colonial times to emancipation following the Civil War," the encyclopedia combines work from 75 different scholars from universities throughout the globe, resulting in a definitive work in which "the female experience is explored, and women are depicted as central, rather than marginal, figures in history." In keeping with her collaborative, multi-media scholarly focus, Dr. Berry's book Slavery and Freedom in Savannah (University of Georgia Press, 2014), edited with Leslie M. Harris (Emory University), a "study of urban slavery in the Deep South," was accompanied by an exhibit of the same name, hosted by Telfair Museums. Both book and exhibit were recognized with awards from the American Association for State and Local History, the Georgia Archives, the Georgia Historical Society, and the Coastal Museums Association. Berry and Harris are currently writing a second book together, Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas, which will be published by University of Georgia Press, drawing from panel discussions and papers pre-circulated at their fall 2011 co-convened conference for the Institute for Historical Studies, "Sexuality & Slavery: Exposing the History of Enslaved People in the Americas."

Learn more about Dr. Berry's work on her faculty home page, and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/lbofflesh.

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Further reading

Listen on 15 Minute History

Read and watch on Not Even Past

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