Death of Theodore Berry, Cincinnati's First Black Mayor and Champion of Proportional Representation
October 15, 2000

Theodore Berry died on October 15 at the age of 94. Mr. Berry was a winner of one of our "Champion of Democracy" awards in 1994. As discussed in a New York Times obituary, he was a strong and effective advocate of proportional representation for five decades. Rarely was the award so fitting. It was a proud moment for us to be able to present both Mayor Berry and Harvard law professor Lani Guinier with their awards at a 1995 gathering in Cincinnati.

After years of work running the Cincinnati NAACP, litigating ground-breaking cases and serving on the city council, Ted Berry nearly became the first black mayor of a major American city, as he was close to gaining the post in the 1950s. Elected by the choice voting method of proportional representation, in 1955 he was the top vote-getter in the city council election, which traditionally led to being mayor when your team of candidates had the majority of seats. The possibility of his becoming mayor in 1957 played a decisive role in the repeal of proportional representation after several previous repeal efforts had failed. In the first winner-take-all election in 1957, he lost badly, and no blacks served again on the council until the mid-1960s. (See Bill Collins' article below for more on Mayor Berry's early career.)

Ted Berry eventually became mayor in the 1970s, and had a string of remarkable accomplishments throughout his life. He helped start our organization, giving the keynote address at our founding conference in Cincinnati in June 1992. He worked hard on behalf of a campaign to restore choice voting in Cincinnati in 1991 - a campaign that won overwhelming support from black voters, but lost 55% to 45%.

This is the obituary of Ted Berry that ran in the New York Times on October 17.  You can also read a fine profile of Ted Berry by Bill Collins from the Voting and Democracy Report: 1995.

Theodore Berry, 94, Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies
October 17, 2000

Theodore M. Berry, a civil rights leader who became Cincinnati's first black mayor after serving as a high official in President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty, died Sunday at a nursing home in Loveland, a Cincinnati suburb. He was 94.

Mr. Berry fought for racial equality as a civil rights lawyer, representing three Tuskegee Airmen in a famous case; as a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and as the official assigned to bring poor people into the policy-making process of the federal anti-poverty effort under Sargent Shriver. He was Cincinnati's first black assistant prosecutor and first black vice mayor before becoming mayor in 1972.

Theodore M. Berry was born on Nov. 8, 1905, in Maysville, Ky. The Cincinnati Post quoted Mr. Berry in 1973 as saying that his mother, a deaf-mute housekeeper, was "taken advantage of by a former employer," a white farmer in Maysville. The matter was dropped when the farmer gave his grandmother, a former slave, two hogs.

As a child in Cincinnati, Mr. Berry sold newspapers, shined shoes, shoveled coal, delivered laundry and shelved books in libraries.

He learned to speak with unusually distinct diction so his mother could read his lips.

He graduated at the top of his high school class, but, although he was the school's first black valedictorian, he was forbidden to walk next to a white classmate at the graduation, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported in an obituary published yesterday.

He graduated from the University of Cincinnati and then from its law school, working in steel mills to pay his way.

His first legal job was as a county prosecutor. He served as president of the Cincinnati branch of the N.A.A.C.P. from 1932 to 1946.

In 1942, he took a leave of absence from the prosecutor's office to go to Washington to work as a morale officer with the Office of War Information. His job was to encourage black soldiers, who were then segregated, a situation he saw the government did not intend to end.

"They wanted to play games with words without making any real fundamental changes," he said. "After nine months, I resigned and returned to Cincinnati."

In 1945, the N.A.A.C.P.'s national legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall, asked Mr. Berry to defend three black Army Air Forces officers, members of the unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen, who faced a court martial for protesting a segregated officer's club at Freeman Field in Seymour, Ind. Mr. Berry won acquittal for two of the men.

In 1995, a half-century later, the Air Force officially vindicated all three men and pardoned the one who was convicted, Roger C. Terry.

In 1947, Mr. Berry ran for the Cincinnati City Council and lost. He won election to the Council in 1949 and was elected vice mayor in 1955. In 1953, as chairman of the city's finance committee, he led a controversial battle to institute a municipal income tax.

In 1957, he was considered a likely choice for mayor, an office the City Council then filled in Cincinnati.

But he was defeated for the Council after the city switched from a system of proportional representation, in which voters listed their candidates in order of preference, that tended to aid minority candidates. Under the new system, Mr. Berry finished 14th in a field of 18, and no blacks were elected to the Council in that election or the next two.

An article in The New York Times at the time cited the racial nature of the change in voting rules.

"Virtually all political observers here agree that the racial crisis [over school desegregation] in Little Rock, Ark., was reflected in the Sept. 30 referendum in which proportional representation was abandoned," The Times reported. "Pointing to Mr. Berry's first-place finish under the proportional representation in 1955, an anti-Negro whispering campaign appealed for the end of the system lest Mr. Berry become the Mayor of Cincinnati."

After his defeat, Mr. Berry created a community action agency in Cincinnati. It caught the attention of Sargent Shriver, who asked Mr. Berry to help with similar efforts nationally. He found himself at odds with mayors who resented militant poor people running programs to fight poverty.

"I believe mayors should consult with all groups  the poor, labor, business and so on," he said in an interview in 1965. "You don't get representation by exercising paternalistic determination."

He returned to Cincinnati after Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, and two years later was appointed to the City Council when a member died. He was elected mayor by his fellow Council members in 1972 and served for four years.

Mr. Berry is survived by his wife of 62 years, Johnnie Mae Berry; two daughters, Faith Berry of Santa Barbara, Calif., and Gail Berry West of Washington; a son, Theodore Newton Berry of Cincinnati; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

In one light moment of his mayoralty, Mr. Berry approached Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York at Shea Stadium in 1973, when the Reds and Mets were locked in battle for the National League pennant.

"I hope I don't embarrass you," Mr. Berry said. "But we've come to take the playoffs from the Mets."

"I don't mind," Mr. Lindsay answered, "so long as you don't consider us poor hosts if we don't let you do it."