Thursday, October 19, 2000

Theodore M. Berry showed them the way

Today's leaders remember their mentor

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Theodore M. Berry was like a rock falling into water.

        He made ripples.

        Throughout his long life, which ended Sunday at age 94, he threw himself onto the placid waters of racism and segregation and a society that told his race that while they were not quite slaves, they were not quite free.

        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.

        Cincinnati — the city he loved and at the same time challenged — is full of people who, over Mr. Berry's seven decades in public life, were inspired, motivated, encouraged and sometimes pushed toward being the best they could be and who learned to never, ever, accept injustice.

        Judge Nathaniel Jones. Marian and Donald Spencer. Ernie Waits. Tyrone Yates.

        They and countless others over the decades looked to Mr. Berry for inspiration and encouragement.

        For each, the message was the same:

[photo] Donald and Marian Spencer lived in an apartment Mr. Berry owned.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Be the best that you can be. Be courageous. Be certain that you are a black man, a black woman, with talents God gave you. Demand — not beg, not plead, demand — your rights be recognized. You are free.

        It was a message they took to heart and passed on to others.

        As the city prepares to honor Mr. Berry today at City Hall, these are the stories of some of those whose lives he touched.


        Mr. Berry was bailing Ernie Waits out of jail when the two first met 61 years ago.

        Mr. Waits, then 19, was not in jail, he thought, because he had done wrong, but because he had done right.

        The Depression-era Cincinnati that Mr. Waits grew up in was a segregated, Jim Crow kind of town. Blacks were not hired by local businesses, except to swing mops. Blacks were not welcome in the places where whites gathered — in the restaurants, the hotels, the theaters.

        Mr. Waits was a student at Woodward High School in the 1930s. He, like most of the black community centered in the West End, knew of Mr. Berry as the first black student to be valedictorian at Woodward and as the courageous young lawyer who headed the local NAACP chapter.

        “I decided way back then that I wasn't going to accept segregation,” Mr. Waits said. “I was very young and didn't know much, but I knew I wasn't going to take it.”

        So the young man began staging his own acts of civil disobedience, acts that presaged a civil rights movement that would come to fruition 30 years later.

        On one evening in 1939, he went to the Schubert Theater in downtown Cincinnati with $5 in his pocket and a determination to get inside.

        Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the black comedian who was sidekick to Jack Benny, was playing at the Schubert that night.

[photo] Ernie Waits remembers being bailed out of jail by Mr. Berry.
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        “I thought that if a black man could be on the stage, surely a black man could be in the audience,” Mr. Waits said.

        The theater manager disagreed and called the police. Mr. Waits was arrested.

        “They beat me up pretty good, too,” Mr. Waits said. Mr. Berry heard of the arrest and came to the jail to bail the young man out.

        “From that day on, he was like my big brother,” Mr. Waits said.

        Mr. Waits and others continued through the 1940s and 1950s to press for desegregation and job opportunities for blacks; Mr. Waits ended up being one of the pioneers himself as the first radio and television personality in Cincinnati broadcasting.

        All the way, Mr. Waits said, he and other like-minded blacks in Cincinnati “depended on Ted Berry for guidance, as an example.”


        In recent years, as Mr. Berry's health declined, Tyrone Yates, the former Cincinnati councilman who is half Mr. Berry's age, would often go see his mentor, just to talk or to read to him after the old man's eyesight had gone.

        Mr. Berry was proud, Mr. Yates said, that to honor his status as the city's first African-American mayor, a yet-to-be constructed street on the redeveloped riverfront would be named for him.

        “Whenever I would go see him, I would tell him that some day he and I would go down to the river together and see Theodore M. Berry Way,” Mr. Yates said.

        “He'd sit in his wheelchair and look at me with a big smile and give two thumbs up.”

        For Mr. Yates, who ended an eight-year stint on City Council last year, Mr. Berry — he always refers to him as “Mayor Berry” — was an inspiration ever since he was growing up on a farm in Brown County.

        A grandfather was a Democratic ward chairman in Cincinnati during Mr. Berry's years on council and an Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother.

        “The first time I laid eyes on him was when he came back from Washington and ran for council again in 1971,” Mr. Yates said. “Then, I saw him as this gigantic figure, somebody you could never approach and talk to. I was in awe.”

        Later, though, he went to the University of Cincinnati and joined the same fraternity Mr. Berry and his grandfather belonged to and eventually got to know the former mayor.

        Over the years, the elder statesman and the young politician developed an almost father-and-son relationship.

        “To me, he was the ideal model to strive towards,” Mr. Yates said.

        Mr. Berry was there, too, at the important times in Mr. Yates' life — all of his council swearing-in ceremonies, his law school graduation, his marriage. At his wedding, the Berrys gave Mr. Yates and his bride goblets that had been given to them at their own wedding 58 years before.

        Three years ago, his health failing, Mr. Berry took an interest in Mr. Yates' last council campaign.

        “He'd sit there and say, "When are we going to get this campaign going?,'” Mr. Yates said. “I'd say, "When you run again, mayor. Yates and Berry. That's the ticket.'”


        Friday, when Judge Nathaniel Jones delivers one of the eulogies to Mr. Berry at his funeral service at Christ Church downtown, he may well be thinking of another speech he gave 54 years ago as a nervous young World War II veteran.

        It was at the Ohio NAACP convention in Dayton, Ohio, and the young lawyer-to-be, fresh out of the Army, was delivering an address to the NAACP's youth council on “What the Returning Negro Veteran Expects.”

        Ted Berry, then the head of the Cincinnati NAACP chapter, was in the audience, and came up to the young speaker from Youngstown afterward to congratulate him.

        “He complimented me on my presentation; he was very flattering,” said Mr. Jones, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati. “I was very impressed that someone like him had noticed me.”

        The Youngstown man had a mentor of his own in J. Maynard Dickerson, a black Youngstown lawyer and publisher. Mr. Dickerson and Mr. Berry were both leaders in the NAACP and “people that my generation looked up to,” Mr. Jones said.

        Over the years, as Mr. Jones advanced through the legal profession, becoming counsel for the NAACP and ultimately a federal judge appointed by President Carter, he and Mr. Berry became close friends.

        “I think the lesson he gave to young lawyers like myself, and black people in general who wanted to see things change, was that it was important to work through the system,” Mr. Jones said.

        “He was able to reinforce in our minds the importance of bringing down the barriers of racial discrimination and to do it through the law,” Mr. Jones aid. “He showed us the way.”

        Sixty years ago, there were few blacks in Cincinnati who had built their own homes, but Ted Berry and his wife, Johnnie Mae, had, and they rented apartments adjacent to it to young black couples just starting out in life.

        Donald and Marian Spencer were one of those young couples, renting an apartment from the Berrys after their marriage in 1940 while Mrs. Spencer went to the University of Cincinnati and Mr. Spencer worked as a teacher and part-time postal worker.

        Mr. Spencer said he had known of Mr. Berry since he was 10 or 11 years old.

        “All black folks did, because here he was in the 1930s as a lawyer and head of the NAACP and people looked up to him, even then,” Mr Spencer said.

        Later when he was a student at UC, he found that blacks were shut out from all student activities and clubs on campus, so he and other black students formed the Quadres, a black student organization that staged its own musical productions, because blacks couldn't participate in official campus productions.

        “We were always going to Ted for advice, for counsel,” Mr. Spencer said. “He knew how to do it. We were just kids. We didn't know how to break down these barriers.

        “But Ted knew the system; he knew the way,” Mr. Spencer said. “He passed it on to us. And we've been passing it on ever since.”


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