Lee Roy Berry, Jr. — an attorney in Goshen, Indiana, and a retired Goshen (Indiana) College professor — tells about how Mennonites and the Civil War made it possible for him to move beyond working the fields as a migrant farm worker. This is an abridged version of a chapel presentation at the Mennonite Church USA offices in Elkhart, Indiana.
Mine is an improbable story, and the odds against my life, developing along the lines that it has, were very long indeed.
My parents Lee Roy and Nettie Mae Hawthorne Berry, grew up in the Deep South and didn't attend school past eighth grade. Migrant farm work took them "up the road" to Hartville, Ohio, where they worked from May until mid-October. In the colder months, they worked the fields in Florida. I joined them in the fields when I was eight years old. We would get up at six o'clock in the morning, board the crew bus, and cultivate and harvest vegetables for urban America. If there were no special orders to fill, we would return from the fields by six in the evening. Saturdays, we usually got off at noon.
School was a problem for families who lived the way we did. Vegetable season coincided with the school calendar. Spring crops needed attention in Ohio before school ended in Florida, and classes started up again before the harvest ended.
One teacher criticized me for starting class several weeks late. After asking a flurry of questions about my family, she asked, "Is that all your mother and father do — go up and down the road and have babies?" I never forgot what she said to me. Years later, I surmised that her hostility toward our family was due to her belief that we made "responsible Negroes," like her, look bad in the eyes of White people, who believed, almost without exception, that Negroes were inferior to White people.
Just before my fifteenth birthday, my father walked out on our family, leaving my mother with nine mouths to feed. There were their eight children — ranging in age from one to 17 years — plus my sister's baby.
I — a highly regarded migrant farm worker, in general, and a particularly able radish-puller — managed to graduate from high school. I had a strong desire to be somebody who would do something other than work on the muck.
January 1962 was an important month in my search for purpose. I had recalled intermittent contact with White people in Hartville, who invited migrant children to come to Bible school after our workday. It was fun and a diversion from the drudgery of the fields. I learned later, they called themselves Mennonites. Mennonites were unlike any White people I had ever met. It seemed to me that they actually practiced what they professed to believe. Moreover, they respected Negroes as persons like themselves because of Jesus' teachings, which led Mennonites to challenge the dominant presumptions of White supremacy. Perhaps, I could find answers to the problems I was facing by becoming a Christian. And since the most authentic Christians I knew were Mennonite Christians, I decided to join Newtown [Florida] Gospel Chapel Mennonite Church.
I told Mervin Shirk, the pastor, about my desire for more education, and he strongly encouraged me to apply at a Mennonite college. To prepare me for the closest one, Eastern Mennonite College [now, University] in Harrisonburg, Virginia, two women from the congregation took me shopping. Picture this incredible scene for that time: two middle-aged White women leading an 18-year-old Negro male up and down the aisles of the JC Penney, in the same manner as they would have done with their own sons!
A few days after the shopping spree, Pastor Shirk and several other church members came to the Trailways bus station and expressed their best wishes to me, as I nervously boarded. Several weeks later, I managed to call my mother, in Ohio, to let her know that I was a college student!
On June 5, 1966, I received my baccalaureate degree. I was surprised when four members from Newtown Gospel Chapel came to celebrate with me. I was quite aware of the support I had received from innumerable people to make my accomplishment possible — the members of my congregation, especially Pastor Shirk and Mildred Yoder, who played the role of de facto mom for me; the students and faculty members who befriended me and brought out the best in me; my oldest brother, John, who sent me $150 (quite a substantial sum at the time); activists in the civil rights movement, who led the battle against Jim Crow and White supremacy. All those, and more, were essential to my achievement.
My college experience cemented my ties to the Mennonite Church. It confirmed my sense that this group of White people was significantly different from most of the White people I had known — not because they were free from White racist beliefs, on which the foundations of American institutions and dominant cultures in the country rested; Mennonites inevitably shared those values. However, I perceived that the core principles of the Mennonite faith, when taken seriously, militated against White supremacy. Although I encountered some Mennonites who were believers in White supremacy, I don't recall meeting one who argued for its legitimacy. This helps explain why several Mennonite church leaders took an interest in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and why the denomination attracted people like the late Vincent Harding.
It also helps explain why an elderly White Mennonite couple from Ohio found it possible to welcome me into their family, through marriage to their daughter, despite their initial strong opposition to the idea.
My decision to become a Christian and a member of the Mennonite denomination determined my destiny. True, indeed, but not the whole truth. There is a deeply held belief in the United States that Black people, like me, were an inferior order of beings and had "…no rights which the White man was bound to respect," according Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, in the Dred Scott Decision in 1857.
My destiny was, and will continue to be, shaped in part by that reality. This is why — though I view what happened on the rolling hills around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863 as both sinful and extremely tragic — I should also gratefully admit that it was essential to the partial liberation of my forebears. Both the Civil War and Mennonites, a people of peace, have determined my destiny.