Friend, mentor, officer, example Coast Guardsman: Maxie McKinley Berry Jr. was the first chief of the military's civil rights division and someone others tried to emulate. A building at the Curtis Bay yard is named in his memory.

February 11, 1996|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,SUN STAFF

For 30 years, Maxie McKinley Berry Jr. swabbed decks, kept tabs on supplies and intervened in discrimination disputes in a Coast Guard career that took him from Boston to Honolulu with stops in Baltimore.

Now, the Coast Guard has honored Mr. Berry, the first chief of the military's civil rights division, by naming the bachelor officers' quarters at Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard for him. The BOQ now is called Berry Hall.

Mr. Berry, who died in 1991, retired from the Coast Guard as a lieutenant commander in 1976. But he quickly went back to work for the Coast Guard as a civilian.

"[He] was slightly below a god to me," said retired Chief Petty Officer Freddie B. Bonds IV, who grew up around the corner from the Berry family on St. Georges Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. "He was a person to sit and talk to -- someone to know."

Mr. Berry, whose grandfather joined the Coast Guard in 1897, continued the family's Coast Guard tradition when he enlisted in July 1945.

He was assigned to Curtis Bay for basic training, then to Alameda, Calif., where he made bunks, cleaned quarters and helped the cook as a third class steward's mate aboard the cutter Sebago. Mr. Berry was discharged in May 1946, but

returned to the Coast Guard a year later because decent civilian jobs for blacks were hard to find.

He was stationed periodically at Curtis Bay, where he worked in the post exchange, during the next 20 years. He met his wife there in the summer of 1947.

Hannah M. Kerr, who had just graduated from what then was Coppin Normal College, and some friends had gone to the base movie theater where Mr. Berry worked part time as a ticket taker.

"They had movies for 10 cents, and civilians could come in," said Mrs. Berry, 70. "One of the girls I was with knew him and introduced us." The ticket taker "didn't catch my eye," she said. "I caught his."

Although Mrs. Berry said he was "becoming annoying" by staring at her, she accepted his offer to walk her to the gate after the movie. They were married a year later.

Mr. Berry rose through the enlisted ranks and become an officer in 1971. In October 1971, Lieutenant Berry was part of a contingent sent from headquarters in Washington to Governors Island, N.Y., to help settle a dispute between black and white Coast Guardsmen over complaints of unequal punishment for racial slurs.

By 1974, Mr. Berry was promoted to lieutenant commander and put in charge of the Military Equal Opportunity Division with the Office of Civil Rights in Washington.

He became a friend and mentor who talked about hopes and dreams with many young blacks in the Coast Guard and an example for those who came after him.

"He was the senior-most black Coast Guard officer I'd seen, and I'd been in the Coast Guard three years by 1973," said Sherney W. Alexander, 43, now a chief warrant officer at Curtis Bay. "He was someone you could emulate or try to emulate."

Mr. Berry "always told me he knew I was going to make it," said Cmdr. Stephen W. Rochon, 45, chief of the operations support and planning division of the Coast Guard's Activities Baltimore group.

If Mr. Berry encountered obstacles in his career because of his color, he never spoke about them, friends and relatives said. He did his job and didn't complain.

"He was just that kind of person," said his daughter, Patricia A. Berry, 39, who lives with her mother in Northeast Baltimore. "He did his best at what he was supposed to do."

After Mr. Berry retired from the Coast Guard in 1976, he became bored and returned to the Coast Guard as a civilian equal-opportunity specialist, his wife said. In 1985, he became an analyst inspecting hazardous material coming into the Port of Baltimore, but retired for good two years later after his health began to decline.

None of the three Berry children continued the family tradition of serving in the Coast Guard, but their father didn't mind, they said.

Patricia Berry is a sales consultant; Helen M. Berry-Cole, 46, is a teacher in Reston, Va. Robert A. Berry, 45, of Sparks became a singer and teacher.

"He knew his children had to find their own way," Robert Berry said. "He was an honorable man and he wanted his children to be honorable people."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.