Berry, Theodore M. 1905–2000
Theodore M. Berry 1905–2000
Lawyer, Mayor, Civil Rights Activist
A civil rights leader who became Cincinnati’s first African-American mayor, Theodore M. Berry was “like a rock falling into water,” according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, “He made ripples…. Those ripples grew and touched the lives of countless others who made their own ripples. The ripples grew into a wave that reached the shore of a new century.” He was involved in many areas and helped in the fight against racial discrimination.
Berry was born on November 8, 1905 in Maysville, Kentucky, the illegitimate son of a deaf-mute housekeeper, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy web site. The family moved to Cincinnati rather early in Berry’s life, and as a child there Berry did many odd jobs to help support his family, including shoe shining, coal shoveling, laundry delivering, book shelving at the local library, and newspaper selling. He was forced, as a young child, to speak with very careful diction so that his mother could read his lips. This habit helped him later on as he became a famous public speaker, in and out of court. He was valedictorian of his 1924 high school class—Woodward High School—but according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, he was forbidden to walk next to his white classmates, and was instead forced to walk alone. Even this small honor didn’t come easily. According to Horizons online magazine, “[h]e had to win a speech writing competition. Which he did. When the administration realized the winner was black, however, they disqualified him and requested new entries…. Keenly aware of what was happening, Berry wrote under a pseudonym the second time. And won once again.” The pseudonym he used was “Thomas Playfair,” a rather apt name for a man unfairly treated. After high school he attended the University of Cincinnati where he obtained first an AB in 1928, and then an LLD in 1931. He paid for his education by working at the Newport steel mills.
Right from the start Berry was interested in helping people suffering from racial prejudices. His first professional job was as a county prosecutor. He opened his own law office with help from Charles Taft, a Cincinnati Charterite and son of former U. S. President William H. Taft. He worked at the Cincinnati Branch of the NAACP from 1932 to 1946. In 1937 he was admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar.
Berry had a brief stint in Washington in 1942, working with black soldiers who were suffering from poor morale. The armed services were still segregated in 1942 when he
Born November 8, 1905 in Maysville, Kentucky; died October 15, 2000 in Loveland, OH; married Johnnie Mae Elaine Newton; children: Faith Berry, Gail Berry West, Theodore Newton Berry. Education, University of Cincinnati, AB, 1928; LLB, 1931.
Career: Lawyer, mayor, Civil Rights activist. President, NAACP, Cincinnati Branch, 1932-46; council member, Cincinnati City Council, 1950-57; assistant director, OEO, 1965-69; mayor, Cincinnati, 1972-75; attorney, Tobias & Kraus; adjunct professor, College of Law, University of Cincinnati, 1976-78; interim General Counsel, NAACP, 1979-80.
Awards: Honorary LLD, University of Cincinnati, 1968; Humanitarian Award, Action, 1973; Outstanding Citizen Award, Omega Psi Phi, 1974; National Conference of Christians and Jews Award, 1977; Doctor of Humane Letters, Hebrew Union College, 1979; William R. Ming Advocacy Award, NAACP, 1979; Distinguished Alumni Award, University of Cincinnati College of Law, 1982; William Howard Taft Americanism Award, Anti-Defamation League, 1990; Community Service Award, Ohio Black Male Coalition, 1991; Community Service Award, A. Philip Randolph lnstitute, 1991; Fifty-Year Public Service Award, Ohio Bar Foundation, 1993; Champion of Democracy Award, Center for Voting and Democracy, 1994; Certificate of Excellence Award, Tuskegee Airmen, 1996; Lifetime Achievement Award, Martin Luther Kind Day Breakfast, 1996; Theodore M. Berry Distinguished Lecture series, 1998; honorary doctor of laws, Salmon P. Chase College of Law, Northern Kentucky University, 1998; Person of the Century Award, Applause Magazine, 2000.
was working with them, and Berry wanted to change that. After a short time, though, Berry saw that things were not going to change anytime soon, and he went back to Cincinnati. “They wanted to play games with words without making any real fundamental changes,” he is quoted as saying in the Center for Voting and Democracy web site, “After nine months, I resigned and returned to Cincinnati.”
In 1945 Thurgood Marshall, then national legal counsel of the NAACP, approached Berry to represent three Army Air Force officers from the Tuskegee Airmen unit. The three men were facing a court martial because they protested the segregation of the officers’ club at Freeman Field in Seymour, Indiana. It was an important case in the eventual desegregation of the armed forces, and Berry managed to win acquittals for two of the men. In 1995, the Air Force officially vindicated all men and gave a pardon to the one who had been convicted. And in 1996 the Tuskegee Airmen gave an official thank you to the man who had defended them 50 years before.
Berry ran for the Cincinnati City Council in 1947, but lost. He was elected to the Council in 1949, however, and was elected as vice mayor in 1955. It was believed that he was the most likely choice of mayor in the 1957 election but because of a change in the voting method, he came in 14 out of 18 contestants. There were whispers of racial prejudice because the new voting structure gave little weight to the black vote, but this situation did not stop Theodore Berry. The following year Berry created Cincinnati’s first Community Action Commission, which caught the attention of Washington, D.C. When the president asked him, Berry left the Cincinnati City Council and went back to Washington in 1964, this time to serve as a high official in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. In 1965 President Johnson appointed him head of the Community Action Programs in the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which included the initiation of such programs as Head Start, Jobs Corps, and Legal Services.
In 1970 when Richard M. Nixon was elected president, Berry returned to the Cincinnati City Council, and two years later, on December 1, 1972, he was finally elected mayor. The Cincinnati Enquirer said of the event, “[t]he 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.” It was seen as the triumphant pinnacle of Berry’s career. He served in this position for four years.
Declining health eventually removed Berry from the public eye but not from its heart. In the year 2000 Berry died in the Lodge Care Center nursing home in Loveland, Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati, according to Jet. The Cincinnati Post made a note on October 23rd that Theodore Berry was being honored with flags at half-staff for 30 days. This honor is usually reserved for the president, but it seems apt that a man who fought for so long for racial equality should so be honored. To show that Cincinnati has not forgotten the man who loved and did so much for it, the Theodore M. Berry Head Start Children and Family Learning Center is slated to open in late 2001. Also in honor of the late mayor is a proposed riverfront park to be named for Berry, an honor for a man who Mayor Charlie Luken told The Cincinnati Enquirer was “one of the greatest Cincinnatians of all time. A kind man, an intelligent man. A true statesman in every respect. He led our city to a better place in the area of civil rights.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer, October 16, 2000; October 19, 2000.
The Cincinnati Post, January 15, 1996; May 24, 1996; June 20, 1997, p. 16A; July 2, 1997, p. 10A; May 28, 1996; April 25, 1997; June 10, 1997; June 13, 1997; October 23, 2000.
Dayton Daily News, October 27, 2000.
Jet, November 6, 2000.
Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2000, p. B7.
New York Times, October 17, 2000, p. B12.