Baltimore's first black mayor reflects on his life and legacy


May 17, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

He wakes up in the morning when his wife wakes him up. Today, a Friday, he puts her on a bus to Atlantic City where Edith Burns, his wife of 53 years, will play the slots. Then, Clarence "Du" Burns waits for the mailman to bring him his pension check.

Awards, still wedged in their Styrofoam, are stored behind the sofa and recliner in his East Baltimore row house, his home of 36 years. Du Burns has run out of room for his stuff -- the good stuff reminding him of his favorite year.

Has it really been seven years since Du became the first black mayor of Baltimore? There he was, the former locker room attendant at Dunbar High School, ascending in 1987 to the city's highest political office. Some people called him dumb; others called him street smart; and many others called him a fair and friendly mayor.

"I loved that job. In my case, I had to love it. Simple reason was all the praise and everything I got. I got standing ovations at churches -- I hadn't done anything for them but I was the first black mayor, you understand? And my gosh, I'd be happy, get filled up with tears. Here I am, good ol' me," says Du.

They named a gleaming, indoor soccer arena in Canton after Du. He wasn't crazy about soccer, but as mayor he got it built anyway. As a councilman, he helped find the millions to build Ashland Park Mews, an urban renewal home-ownership development. And a portrait of Clarence "Du" Burns hangs inside the East Baltimore Medical Center on Eager Street. As Du says, he was the first black man in Baltimore to have a bank loan him $4 million -- money the city used to build the medical center.

Then, Du was gone from office. He was defeated in late 1987 by a young, educated and popular guy -- "the other guy," as Du sometimes calls Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Du ran again in 1991 and lost again to Mr. Schmoke.

Now Clarence Henry Burns holds no office. He still speaks at schools or community groups now and then, sits on a community board or two. He has a few connections left; for example, he still can get a box seat at Camden Yards to see his beloved Orioles. But Du's not a player in city politics anymore. Yet, folks haven't forgotten the man who always kept his home phone number listed.

"Yesterday, a lady called me about the rats. 'You know, Mr. Burns, we never had no problems as long as you were in office,' she says. I can't help her now. I could make demands then. I can't anymore," says the former mayor.

You see, Du Burns says, that's all people want. They want someone to get rid of the rats in their lives.

Favorite hangout

The Palmer House Restaurant on Eutaw Street is Du Burns' favorite haunt. It's the kind of place -- all 40-odd years of it -- where the waitresses need two more hands. And the past and present seem melded into one tense.

Du usually comes in around 3 p.m. to join the late lunch crowd. At 75, he cuts a fit figure and looks like he could either play nine holes or fix potholes. Measuring at close to 6 feet tall, Du is a man of stature. Today, he's dressed in his Sunday best clothes. His tie is knotted in the perfect shape of home plate.

Some people call him "Mr. Mayor" but most call him "Du," also out of respect. In the 1940s, when Clarence Burns was knee-deep in local politics, people started calling him "Du" because he was always doing things for people.

He also delivered votes for Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro. That's how Du got the job at Dunbar High School, which was built on the grounds where Du's boyhood home had stood.

For 22 years, Du Burns picked up wet towels and washed uniforms in the locker room. All the while, he was talking and learning politics. He started his own political club, which evolved into the Eastside Democratic Organization. So, it was no shock to Baltimore in 1971 when Du ran for City Council from the Second District and won. He worked at City Hall for the next 17 years.

At the Palmer House, Du sits down near his old friend and the restaurant's longtime owner, Tom D'Anna.

"He really should have won that last election," says Mr. D'Anna, 80. "I always kid Du that he's going to run again." ("I'm not," Du says.)

The walls of the Palmer House are papered with photographs of everyone from Bogie and Bacall to Ron and Nancy. Du Burns is in a dozen pictures: Du shaking hands with President Carter; Du buddy-buddy with his political hero Gov. William Donald Schaefer; and Du posing in studio shots. The man does look sharp in a suit.

"He never has anything bad to say about anyone or anything -- except my hair," says waitress Josie Schonberger. Her hair color was gray but now it's sort of blond. And her hair is, well, tall.

"She's getting close to being a red-head today," Du says to Josie. "I got to take her to the barber to get it cut off." Another waitress, Connie Wyatt, brings him a Sprite. He holds her hand and raves about the Italian cookies Connie makes. Du then announces that she's not a real Italian.

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