After just over a month working with the Theodore M. Berry collection, I’m really beginning to feel that I have a strong grasp on who he was as a person, a politician and a civil rights activist and what he meant to the city of Cincinnati and to the United States. During my initial exploration of the collection, I was lucky enough to discover things in a fairly logical, chronological order; finding a large felt “W” from Berry’s stint on the football team at Woodward High School, a membership card for the University of Cincinnati chapter of AΦA , his 1931 class picture from the College of Law, a letter of acceptance from the Ohio Bar Association, literature from his Cincinnati City Council campaigns, over 100 letters of congratulations after his presidential appointment to the Office of Economic Opportunity, newspaper clippings from his 1972 Mayor Inauguration and a 1945 Valentine from Ted to his wife, Johnnie Mae. These things, which on their own would seem too little to be of much significance, are together telling me a story of a man whose impact on Cincinnati and on the United States as a nation seems immeasurable.
For those blog readers who may not know, Theodore Berry, in addition to having been Cincinnati’s first African-American Mayor, did a great deal of work as a presidential appointee for the War on Poverty during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Earlier this week, I came across a 1969 interview with Stephen Goodell in which Berry recalls the moment when, during a conference for the National Urban League in Washington DC in December of 1964, he first caught the attention of Sargent Shriver, then director of the Peace Corps and soon to be director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. In response to a comment aimed at Shriver and Johnson’s War on Poverty charging that the federal government should be held responsible for the economic prosperity of communities and their citizens, Berry:
“got up in the course of the discussion… and said something to the effect that ‘It’s a misunderstanding about the legislation if you’re thinking that it’s a program in which the federal government is charged with responsibility of coming out to your community and laying something down on the table for you and say this is what you might do or have.’ I emphasized that every community would get out of the War on Poverty what it was willing and able to put into it in terms of ideas, imagination, organization; and it was a community responsibility. As I said, it was the first time that the federal government was making an offer for communities to do something for themselves.”
This frank and honest speech caught the ear of “Sarge” Shriver and barely a month later, while in Washington for the presidential inauguration, Shriver made Berry an offer to become the first director of the Community Action Program in the Office of Economic Opportunity. Citing his obligations to his law practice, his family and to the city of Cincinnati as a Councilman, Berry was hesitant accept such a position, but after a few hours and many phone calls, Berry consented, “If you have the courage to make the offer, I have the guts to accept it – the challenge.”
– Written by Laura Laugle, Berry Project Archivist
In 2010, the University of Cincinnati Libraries received a $61,287 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the Archives and Records Administration to fully process the Theodore M. Berry Collection in the Archives & Rare Books Library. All information and opinions published on the Berry project website and in the blog entries are those of the individuals involved in the grant project and do not reflect those of the National Archives and Records Administration. We gratefully acknowledge the support of NARA.