By Laura Laugle
Up to now, I have explained to you some (very little actually, but we’ll get there) of what made Berry an important figure. If you’ve been reading regularly, you’ll know that Ted Berry was an attorney, a civil rights activist, a local politician and a key player in “The War on Poverty.” What you would not know, because I have thoughtlessly neglected to tell you, is why he is so important to the University of Cincinnati in particular. The short answer is that he was an alumnus. The complete answer is that he was an important part of UC’s community and he has become part of the University’s history.
While at UC, Berry received many honors, both local and national. Perhaps the most outstanding of which is the Jones Oratorical Prize which he won in 1928 for his speech entitled “The Significance of the Minority.” In that speech Berry, then a senior undergraduate at UC, challenged America “… to live by the principles of the founders of our democracy, and to practice a new ideal of human understanding and fair dealing.”
Aside from noting his numerous awards, Berry must also be acknowledged for having helped create a voice for the African-American students here. Joining the black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha in 1926 Berry helped his fellow members thrive in a system which excluded them from most aspects of campus life and he eventually became the fraternity’s first undergraduate Vice-President. He also helped found the first publication written for and by African-American students at the University of Cincinnati, The New Horizon. In that magazine he published the following statement to urge his fellows onward: “For a group that is still struggling to find itself and to obtain a recognized position in a complex and competitive social order, it is highly important that individuals forget themselves for a time in the interest of the group.” It would not be long until Berry would do just that and put his life at risk by traveling the Deep South with fellow civil rights attorney and activist, Thurgood Marshall, filing lawsuits and “jokingly” flipping a coin to decide who would take the bed closest to the window and therefore be in the most danger from firebombs.
Fortunately, neither Berry nor Marshall was hurt and Berry went on to become all that he was – keeping in touch with UC all along the way.
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.