Monday, October 16, 2000

Berry had a lifetime of firsts

        We have sometimes wondered what might have been going through the mind of Theodore M. Berry on Dec. 9, 1972, as he stood in the well of Cincinnati City Council chambers to take the oath, becoming the city's first African-American mayor.

        Pride, we think, and joy. A sense of accomplishment and opportunity, and the weight of being the first of his race to stand where he was standing.

        And, we can imagine, a feeling that it should not have taken this long.

Ted Berry takes the oath as mayor in 1972.
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        By the time he took that oath, Mr. Berry, who died Sunday morning at the age of 94, had already had a life so full of challenge and triumph and disappointment that it almost seemed worthy of a novel; no one man could have experienced so much.

        His was a dizzying list of accomplishments:

        • Born in poverty near Maysville, he became the first black youth to be valedictorian at Woodward High School.

        • In the 1930s, he headed the local chapter of the NAACP and, for a generation of black Cincinnatians, became the articulate, forceful advocate they came to in times of trouble, their fearless battler against discrimination and injustice.

        • He was the first black assistant county prosecutor in the late 1930s, and he started a career as a Cincinnati City Council member when he was elected on the Charter Committee ticket in 1949.

        • He defended the Tuskegee Airmen — the three black U.S. Army AIr Corps officers who tried to integrate an all-white officers' club.

        • In a stint in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1960s, he helped create some of the most successful social programs of the century — Head Start, Legal Services, the Jobs Corps.

        But the moment that came in December 1972 was an important piece of political symbolism, marred only by the fact that it should have come 15 years earlier.

        In 1957, Mr. Berry was a Charterite councilman and on the verge of being elected mayor by his peers. That was too much, though, for the white power structure of Cincinnati, and, in September of that year, they persuaded Cincinnati voters to go to the polls and do away with proportional representation, the weighted voting system that allowed African-Americans to gather enough support to get elected.

        It was replaced with the system that diluted the black vote and Mr. Berry was defeated in the next election.

        They thought they had done away with Ted Berry; what they did not understand was that Cincinnati was changing and Ted Berry was not a man to go away quietly.

        So, 15 years later, that ceremony took place.

        Mr. Berry left council four years later. But since then, until illness forced him off the stage, all manner of organizations, political and civic, have brought Mr. Berry back before the public when they needed someone who could lend a sense of importance to the cause, someone who could speak in a quiet but firm voice and who would be believed.

        “When he spoke, people listened,” said Marian Spencer, a friend for 60 years and the first African-American woman elected to council 17 years ago.

        He would not, probably, be comfortable on the stage of City Hall politics today, in an age where posturing and gamesmanship rule, where, if something good comes out of City Hall, it is usually the byproduct of someone's personal political agenda.

        Ted Berry practiced the kind of politics where doing good was its own reward.

        And, in that, the “first” may be the last.


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