Photograph of a group of men in suits.

Leonidas Berry and the African Methodist Episcopal Church

By Kaveri Curlin ~

Dr. Leonidas Berry was born into a strong religious tradition. According to his 1982 autobiography I Wouln’t Take Nothin’ For My Journey: Two Centuries of an Afro-American Minister’s Family, one of the first things his grandfather John Berry did after escaping the Gardner Plantation for the Union Army was join a church choir. His father, Llewleyn Berry, discovered his gift for preaching early in life when he used to practice giving “sermons” to animals at Butler—the family farm in Virginia where Leonidas was raised. While Dr. Berry neglected to follow his preacher father to the pulpit, he was a dedicated member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Over the course of his life Dr. Berry coordinated many medical outreach and service events through the religious institution.

An African American family with two young children sit for a formal portriat.
From left: Rev. Llewellyn L. Berry, Leonidas H. Berry (age 3), Beulah H. Berry, Richard Berry (18 months), Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1907
National Library of Medicine

Dr. Berry graduated from Rush Medical School of the University of Chicago in 1929 and immediately began working as an intern at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. He returned to Providence Hospital in Chicago to complete his internal medicine residency. Once Dr. Berry became a fully qualified gastroenterologist, he volunteered his medical skills to the AME Church, and in 1948 was elected as its first Medical Director.

A two color program with a photograph of Berry as Medical Director.
Page 2 of Report to the 38th general conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia highlighting the activities of the church’s Health Commission, headed by Leonidas Berry, 1968
National Library of Medicine

As the AME Medical Director, Dr. Berry believed that “the health care needs of Negro-Americans, of poor Americans, of disadvantaged Americans are the health care needs of African Methodist Episcopal Americans,” and in that spirit offered health care organized by the church to anyone in need. Dr. Berry used quadrennial General AME Conferences as an opportunity to provide healthcare. From 1952 through 1964, Dr. Berry set up free First Aid tents in various host cities to provide both primary and specialized care. An estimated 500–600 people came to the temporary clinics to get treatment for problems ranging from hypertension to stroke recovery. In a letter addressed to Dr. Berry, Eugene Kelly Jr., an administrator of the AME affiliated Douglass Hospital in Kansas City, expressed his thanks for his hard work and integration of medical services. He wrote “I am pleased to acknowledge your interesting letter related to the development of your report for the approaching General Conference of the AME Church to be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We can always rely upon you to bring a good record of the activities and an excellent projection of potential service in the area of health and related fields of endeavor.”

Dr. Berry’s medical outreach efforts also extended internationally. In 1965 he participated in a trip sponsored by the State Department to East in West Africa where he connected with AME churches in Lagos, Nigeria and Monrovia, Liberia. As a medical emissary he conversed with Ministers of Health, heads of hospitals, and other key stakeholders about improving health outcomes for members of the African Diaspora. Dr. Berry was passionate about international outreach because he was able to collaborate with international colleagues and visit his ancestral homeland.

A Western Union telegram from the Embassy of Nigeria, Washington, DC, to Dr. Leonidas H. Berry
Following Leonidas H. Berry’s State Department-sponsored trip to Nigeria and other African nations tolecture and provide gastroscopy demonstrations, this telegram from a Nigerian official expressed thanks, August 11, 1965
National Library of Medicine

The AME Church also served as a conduit for Dr. Berry to coordinate scientific and health professions mentoring opportunities for young students. Dr. Berry realized that training young African Americans was the best way to improve health outcomes and medical access and founded The Council for Biomedical Careers in Chicago.  As acting director of the council, Dr. Berry coordinated health conference weeks where an average of 500 teenagers in the Chicago area learned from established doctors, nurses, and dentists about career paths in the medical profession. Many of the participating professionals volunteering their time were also members of the AME Church. Dr. Berry also relied on the AME Church for building space and facilities to host his events.

A group of photographs tacked to a message board.
Collage of photographs showing Dr. Berry and gastroscopy classes at Cook County Graduate School of Medicine, ca. 1970s
National Library of Medicine

Over the course of his fifty-six year medical career, Dr. Berry partnered with the AME Church to improve health equity and opportunity for those in need in his hometown Chicago, Illinois, as well as across the African Diaspora. He was a deeply devout man who cared about the health of his people.

The National Library of Medicine provides online access to more than 1,600 materials selected and digitized from the Leonidas H. Berry Papers, 1907–1982 manuscript collection including letters, photographs, and ephemera documenting the career and personal life of the trailblazing physician and civil rights advocate. His work is recognized in the NLM traveling banner exhibition For All the People: A Century in Citizen Action in Health Care Reform; the online adaptation of the exhibition features 1,686 digitized items in a digital gallery.

Kaveri Curlin is a recent graduate of Yale University where she studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She is a current postbaccalaureate researcher in the Social Determinants of Obesity Laboratory at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. She is also a volunteer in the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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