13 minute read

Don Berrysmith Biography

Grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Traveled to Europe in the Air Force


Psychotherapist, social worker

During the first 20 years of his life, Don Berrysmith encountered a broad range of the African-American experience. From segregated Louisiana to liberal, but largely white, Seattle, and from Texas boot camp to the bistros of Paris and Copenhagen, Berrysmith learned about racism from the overt to the subtle. In Europe, he also got a glimpse of another world, where the color of his skin did not automatically define him as inferior to the white people around him. Always sharply observant, he developed an understanding of the impact that poverty and racism had on mental and emotional health. He not only forged a graduate degree and a lifelong career out of his experiences, but he also worked to give those most overlooked by the mental health system a voice in their own care.

Don Reginald Berrysmith was born in the tiny town of Jeanerette, Louisiana, in early March 1936. His mother, Neotha Rochon, worked as an elementary school teacher in Jeanerette. His father, Chester Berrysmith, was the school principal in nearby New Iberia. Educational prospects for African Americans were bleak in 1930s Louisiana, but Chester had been able to rise to the office of principal even though he had only attended college for a year.

Berrysmith spent the first seven years of his life with his family in New Iberia. Then, as the United States was swept up in World War II, Chester Berrysmith heard of good job opportunities working in the shipyards in Seattle, Washington. Leaving his family behind, he headed for the Pacific Northwest, where he got a job making three times what he had made as the principal of a Southern black school. A year later, in 1943, he sent for his family, and the Berrysmiths made Seattle their home.

Grew up in the Pacific Northwest

In the 1940s, Washington had been a state for less than sixty years. Before the arrival of European settlers, Indian tribes like the Duwamish and the Suquamish had fished the shores of Puget Sound where Seattle is located. Many Scandinavian immigrants settled in the area, drawn to similarities in terrain and weather as well as jobs cutting timber or outfitting prospectors for the Alaska gold rush in the late 1890s. The population in the 1940s was diverse; there were still Native people living in and around the city, and many Asian immigrants lived and worked in Seattle. However, the city had a very small black population. In the 1940s, the war industry drew a steady stream of black workers from the South, but Seattle still remained predominately white. This white world came as a shock to a seven-year-old child from a black community in segregated Louisiana. Berrysmith found himself the only black student in his entire school.

Like many people from the French-influenced state of Louisiana, Neotha Berrysmith was a devout Catholic, so her children attended Catholic schools. Throughout his schooling, Berrysmith was among no more than a few other African American students, and often found himself harassed by white boys. Since he and his brother had few allies, they learned to defend themselves. Don was thin and small, but soon became angry and tough enough that the bullies learned to leave him alone. His self-image of strength and independence was reinforced when his parents divorced when he was eleven years old. As the oldest son, Berrysmith considered himself the man of the house.

Throughout his years at Catholic school, Berrysmith continually fought for respect from both students and teachers. When one of the Catholic Brothers who taught him at O'Dea High School refused to allow him to participate in an oratory contest, he only became more determined to succeed. The following year, he not only competed in the contest, but also won the trophy, defeating the students sponsored by the Brother who had kept him out of the competition.

Throughout his education, Berrysmith received conflicting messages from his parents. His father believed strongly that education was important, especially for black Americans trying to improve their lives. Berrysmith remembered in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that his father would tell his children repeatedly: "Knowledge is power." Neotha Berrysmith, on the other hand, often described a black man with a higher education as, "another janitor with a degree," as Berrysmith recalled to CBB. She considered education a waste of time, since she felt that blacks would never be allowed to rise to top jobs. She encouraged her son to learn a trade, get a good job, and work hard.

Traveled to Europe in the Air Force

In 1951, when Berrysmith was 15, his world changed in several fundamental ways. His mother remarried, and her oldest son found it hard to accept a new man in the house. Around the same time, an even larger change took place in Berrysmith's thinking. Raised in Catholic schools by a devout mother, Berrysmith had always been a religious young man. He had been an altar boy, helping the priest serve mass, and, during his first two years of high school, had been on the honor roll. A trip back to Louisiana to visit his mother's family caused him to question the church in which he had placed his faith.

Attending mass back in New Iberia, Berrysmith noticed something strange. He leaned over and whispered to his mother, "There aren't many white Catholics in Louisiana, are there?" When his mother explained that there were indeed many white Catholics, who were attending mass at the white cathedral across town, Berrysmith was stunned. He felt he could no longer trust a church that could teach brotherly love and yet practice segregation. When he returned home to Seattle, he withdrew from the church.

He also withdrew his energy from his studies. He became rebellious, challenging his teachers, his new stepfather, and the other adults in his life, who he had begun to feel were all hypocrites and liars. He was expelled, first from O'Dea High School, then from Garfield, his neighborhood public high school. The altar boy who had attended mass every day began hanging out on the streets, looking for trouble.

At the age of 17, Berrysmith joined the Air Force. His mother opposed the idea, but his father persuaded her that the discipline of the service would help their rebellious son. After a grueling 13-week boot camp training in San Antonio, Texas, Berrysmith was assigned to serve as a medic in the base dental clinic. However, he had no desire to stay in the South, and as soon as possible, he took a tour of duty in Europe.

At a Glance …

Born Don Reginald Berrysmith on March 6, 1936, in Jeanerette, Louisiana; married LaVonne McGee, 1966 (divorced); married Ann Shigeta, 1981; children: three children. Education: University of Washington, MA, social work, 1974.

Career: Harborview Hospital Psychiatric Ward, orderly, 1952; Harborview Hospital, orderly, 1960-61; Luther Burbank, cottage supervisor, 1963-66; Echo Glen, cottage supervisor, 1967-68; Seattle Mental Health Institute, director of citizen participation, associate director, 1968-79; private practice psychotherapist, 1980-2001.

Memberships: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Seattle Metropolitan Urban League; National Association of Social Workers, Children's Hospital Guild.

Awards: Central Seattle Community Council, Man of the Year, 1969.

Addresses: Home—Seattle, WA.

When he went to France in 1954, Berrysmith found a very different world from that in which he had been raised. Though some discrimination existed, the entrenched anti-black racism he had experienced did not. Though still in the Air Force, he maintained a full social life. He traveled, met interesting people, went to clubs, gambled, listened to music, and enjoyed life in general. He even planned to continue living in France after he got out of the Air Force. However, some trouble with military authorities resulted in his being sent back to the United States, where he was discharged in 1958.

Began Social Service Work

When he returned to the United States, he made a brief stop in New Iberia, where he enjoyed his new status as "man of the world." However, he soon realized that he did not have the temperament to endure the blatant racial discrimination practiced in Louisiana during the 1950s. With his pride and quick temper, he knew that life in the segregated South would be dangerous for him. By 1959 he had returned to Seattle, where racial bias was present, but in a much less obvious way.

Before he entered the Air Force, Berrysmith had worked as an orderly in the psychiatric ward of Seattle's public hospital, Harborview. There, he had seen the pain and degradation of mental patients who had few treatment options besides being tied in restraints and given electric shocks. On his return, he again took a job at Harborview. Though treatments were somewhat less violent by the early 1960s, new psychiatric drugs like Thorazine left patients sluggish and unresponsive. Berrysmith watched them with sympathy and thought there must be a better way to treat those who suffered from mental and emotional pain.

Around this time, he began to visit a friend who worked at Luther Burbank School, a juvenile detention facility. He liked helping out with the boys who had been sentenced to stay at the school, and soon he left Harborview and went to work at Luther Burbank full time as a cottage supervisor. It made him angry that society seemed so easily to discard the young men of color who made up much of the school's population. He saw much of himself in the troubled youths, and he offered them discipline, respect, and friendship. They responded by respecting Berrysmith in turn, by winning most of the school's sports competitions, and by gaining their releases from the facility. Though proud of his students' successes, Berrysmith was disturbed by how many returned to detention after facing poverty, discrimination, and violence in the world outside.

Berrysmith continued to work with delinquent youth for the next six years, first at Luther Burbank, then at a new facility called Echo Glen. In 1968 he left Echo Glen, anxious to become part of a growing nationwide social reform movement that was seeking change in everything from the status of African Americans to the mental health system. He was hired in July 1968 to be a "community outreach worker" at Seattle Mental Health Institute (SMHI), a community mental health center.

The psychiatrists in charge of SMHI took advantage of the federal Model Cities program to gain funds for their center. Model Cities, initiated during the late 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson, was an ambitious plan to fight crime, unemployment, poverty, and other urban problems by funding community-based social programs. In 1967 Johnson had also provided government funds for the Community Mental Health Centers Act, which was part of the same broad government program to improve conditions for people living in poor communities. Though SMHI received money from the National Mental Health Institute (NMHI) through the Community Mental Heath Centers Act, and though they hired a black outreach worker, they had little idea how to create a really community-based center.

Did Groundbreaking Work in
Community Health Care

However, Don Berrysmith did have ideas. He had grown up in the Central District of Seattle, the same area served by SMHI, and he was bursting with exciting plans for improving the mental health of his community. His first step was to re-define his job. Instead of a low-level outreach position, which might involve passing out flyers and attending meetings in the community, Berrysmith demanded a whole department devoted to getting the community involved in its own mental health care. He called it the Department of Citizen Participation. He would be the head of the department, and he would report directly to the head of the agency. The SMHI board of directors agreed, and the Department of Citizen Participation began its work.

Berrysmith then began to do outreach, not only to the community, but also to federal agencies, like the National Institute of Mental Health. He contacted various local committees of the Model Cities Program, such as the law and justice task force, the poverty task force, and the housing task force. Berrysmith proposed that a citizen participation task force be added to these groups. Not only did the Model Cities Program agree, but they made Berrysmith co-chair of the task force on health.

Having taken citizen participation into the organizations, Berrysmith then began to do outreach into the community, "I wanted to take the message to the community that the mental health center belonged to them," he said. He encouraged members of the community to let the center know what services were needed. His work on the various Model City task forces became even more important, because issues like poverty, housing, and law and justice are at the very center of mental health issues of poor people of color. As Berrysmith himself had experienced, both in his own life and in his work with deliquent children, poverty and discrimination led to anger and depression. That anger and depression, Berrysmith noted, too often led the poor and oppressed to prison or mental hospitals.

Berrysmith and Julia Bassett, his assistant at SMHI, worked hard to accomplish the changes they thought were necessary to create a truly community-based mental health center. However, it seemed that small reforms would not be enough. Most of the doctors and members of the board of directors in charge of SMHI were wealthy white people who did not live in the neighborhood the center served. Berrysmith began to feel that they could not understand the community's needs and would never make the necessary changes in the center. He called on the many powerful people he had worked with in the Model Cities Program to put pressure on SMHI to use the federal money grants it had received for more innovative and community-based programs.

This federal pressure combined with Berrysmith's base of support in the community began to make the SMHI management uncomfortable. The head of the agency resigned, followed by much of the rest of his administration. These department heads were soon replaced with more community-oriented workers. The board of directors was reorganized to include members of the local community. Berrysmith himself headed a committee of three to seek a new director for the agency. They hired Myron Kowals, who had written the original grant that gained government funds for SMHI. Berrysmith became his associate director.

Under the new administration, SMHI flourished. Exciting new programs were instituted, such as a working gas station, where mental health patients could learn job skills and responsibilities. In addition, Berrysmith set up an extensive volunteer program, where community members could work in all areas of the center and participate in meetings on an equal basis with paid staff. He also continued to work for racial balance on the center's staff and to do anti-racism work within the community.

Earned Master's Degree

While working at SMHI, Berrysmith continued to develop his own career. He had never finished high school, but passed a General Educational Development test while in the Air Force that gave him the equivalent of a high school diploma. Later, he attended high school classes in Seattle so that he could earn an actual diploma. Though he had taken courses at Edison Technical School (now called Seattle Central Community College), the University of Washington, and Olympic College in the nearby town of Bremerton, he had never earned a college degree. However, citing his studies and his varied work experience, he petitioned the University of Washington to accept him as a graduate student. The university agreed, and in 1974 Berrysmith received his master's degree in social work.

In 1979 he left SIMH to go into private practice as a counselor. In 1980 he put to use the skills he had learned while restructuring the mental health center. He won a contract from the National Mental Institute of Mental Health to travel to 15 mental health centers in California and Arizona to train their boards of directors in the issues of community mental health. He also joined the faculty of the University of Washington for a time as a visiting lecturer, teaching medical school students about a topic which was very important to him, "Politics of the Powerless."

At the same time, he developed a thriving counseling practice, focusing on couples and families. During the mid 1980s, he was contracted by the Seahawks football team for counseling and drug treatment. In 1990 together with two other therapists, he began another innovative program, domestic violence treatment aimed at batterers. For eight years, Berrysmith and his associates took on the difficult and often unappreciated task of teaching those who had been violent towards family members more constructive ways of expressing anger. Courts often referred those convicted of domestic violence to Berrysmith's group for counseling.

In 2001 Don Berrysmith retired. He has continued to live in Seattle and to participate in community events. His retirement has provided him with more time to devote to his family, his travels, and his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.



Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Don Berrysmith on November 10, 2004.

—Tina Gianoulis

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Miguel Angel Asturias: 1899-1974: Writer to Don Berrysmith Biography - Grew up in the Pacific Northwest