Thursday, October 19, 2000

PULFER: Theodore Berry

Let's think of a big memorial

        Ted Berry died Sunday, in case you haven't heard. Mr. Theodore M. Berry, actually. Most of us weren't qualified to call him “Ted.” In fact, most of us were not fit to shine his shoes. And not brave enough to walk in them.

        As head of the local NAACP, Mr. Berry persuaded city leaders to appoint a biracial committee to investigate complaints of police brutality. If you think this is politically charged now, imagine what it was in 1932. The wing nuts blow off steam on radio talk shows these days. Back then, they cracked skulls.

        That was the illegal part.

        Legally, black people were simply denied access to American life. Jobs. Housing. Black physicians couldn't admit patients to white hospitals. Black people couldn't buy a ticket to the Albee or eat in a downtown restaurant. They couldn't take their kids to Coney Island.

        “Practically every social gain has come through legal action,” Mr. Berry said. And he was in the thick of the action.

        The son of a white farmer he met only once and a deaf-mute mother, Mr. Berry was the first black valedictorian at Woodward High School. He worked in a steel mill to pay his way through the University of Cincinnati.

        Armed with a law degree, he defended three black Air Force officers, court-martialed after trying to enter an all-white officers' club. He took on some big cases, like the one against Crosley Radio, which at the time had not a single black worker. But he wasn't too busy to make a ruckus when a black man was denied a haircut at a downtown hotel.

        Pushing, getting people to work together — sometimes to their own surprise. He was a politician, in the finest sense. Then he made it official — running for Cincinnati City Council.

        The telephone calls began. Ugly ones. To his children. This is a considerable price to pay.

        “In private,” his daughter said, “he was what you saw in public.” Brave. Principled. Distinguished. He had gravitas before politicians were trying to buy it.

        Mayor Berry presided over Cincinnati City Council from 1972 to 1975. He did this, of course, with enormous dignity. I try to imagine him in today's council chambers, where the discourse from the public is increasingly crude and officialdom is swollen with ego and personal agenda.

        I cannot.

        His life was bigger than that. All 94 years of it. Sometimes this “rabble-rouser” made huge strides. Sometimes he moved things an inch at a time. He was civil. He was serious. He was relentlessly dissatisfied.

        His death was no surprise. He'd been ailing. And, in fact, during the past few years there has been a nearly unseemly rush to honor him. Awards. A lecture series in his name. A park. A street.

        “He lived his life fighting for people to be given a fair shake,” Marian Spencer says. “If people want to really honor what Ted Berry was all about, they'd work to make sure that all young black people would be free to move to their peak potential in every walk of life.”

        So. How about a continuing tribute to Theodore M. Berry.

        Starting right now.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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