Born in poverty in Maysville, Kentucky, and raised in the West End, Theodore (Ted) Berry graduated from Woodward High School in 1924 as the first African American class valedictorian in Cincinnati. In his senior year, he won an essay contest with an entry submitted under the pseudonym Thomas Playfair after an all-white panel had rejected his initial entry.
Berry worked at steel mills in Newport to pay tuition at the University of Cincinnati and then at its law school. In 1932, he was admitted to the Ohio Bar and became the youngest president of the Cincinnati NAACP. In the 14 years he led the civil rights organization, he sued Crosley Radio for not having any Black workers, and he took on the Board of Education because there were no Black members. He also got an acquittal for a Black man sentenced to the electric chair.
While making strides as a community leader, Ted Berry’s career began to take off as well. In 1938, he was appointed the first Black assistant prosecuting attorney for Hamilton County. During WWII, he worked at the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C. – an experience that changed his political affiliation from Republican to Democrat.
Before the war ended, Berry defended three Tuskegee Airmen who protested a segregated officer’s club in Indiana. He won an acquittal for two of the men and, in 1995, the Air Force pardoned the third who had been convicted.
Upon returning to Cincinnati, Berry served on the NAACP Ohio Committee for Civil Rights Legislation from 1947 to 1961, where he worked on equal employment and fair housing issues. He also began his political career in 1947 when he ran for City Council. Berry lost that year but was elected in 1949 to the first of three consecutive terms. As a councilor, he led a controversial battle to create a city income tax.
Berry was the top vote-getter in the 1955 council race and looked like a strong candidate for mayor, only to be undermined by racism when voters, at the council’s urging, abolished the proportional representation system for an at-large system. As a result, he served as the city’s first African American vice mayor.
After serving as vice mayor, Berry became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. He and Thurgood Marshall traveled – at significant personal risk – to file lawsuits. Berry also used his time out of public office to create Cincinnati’s first community action commission in 1964 that enabled the city to participate in President Johnson’s War on Poverty programs.
President Johnson was so impressed with Berry’s work, he appointed him assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, overseeing the Head Start, Job Corps and legal services programs. Berry returned to Cincinnati and was appointed to City Council in 1971. He was elected Cincinnati’s first African American mayor in 1972 and served for four years.
Theodore M. Berry | African American Resources | Cincinnati History Library and Archives (cincymuseum.org)
Ted Berry – Wikipedia
From The Vault: Ted Berry tried to bridge races as Cincinnati’s first African-American mayor (wcpo.com)
The First 28, graciously sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, celebrates Black Cincinnatians who were the first in their fields. Each day during Black History Month, we will celebrate athletes, artists, business leaders, civil rights activists, educators, physicians and politicians.
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