First black mayor of Baltimore dies

loved job and city

`Old-time, caring politician' rose from locker room job to improve people's lives

Clarence H. Du Burns : 1918 - 2003

January 13, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs and Laura Vozzella | Johnathon E. Briggs and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Clarence H. Du Burns, a self-made politician who rose through grass-roots involvement in his native East Baltimore to become the city's first African-American mayor, died yesterday of renal failure at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. He was 84.

Throughout his career, Mr. Burns never let the public forget his humble beginnings, growing up in a house at 424 N. Caroline St., his jobs hawking newspapers and vegetables, and getting hired as a locker room attendant at Dunbar High School the old-fashioned way - through City Hall connections.

In the span of just 15 years, with political acumen, charm and personal warmth, he ascended from that modest job to the city's highest office.

FOR THE RECORD - The obituary of former Baltimore Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns in yesterday's editions incorrectly stated the number of years he was married to his wife, Edith. They were married for 63 years. The Sun regrets the error.

He got the nickname "Du" in the 1940s when he was knee-deep in local politics - always doing things for people. Among his many deeds was delivering votes for Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., the task that helped him land the locker room job.

The school, built on the ground where Mr. Burns' boyhood home had stood, was where he laid the foundation of his political career. During the 22 years Mr. Burns spent picking up wet towels and washing uniforms, he was learning the ins and outs of politics through his own political club, which evolved into the Eastside Democratic Organization.

From that platform, Mr. Burns launched his campaign for City Council from the 2nd District in 1971 - and won. For the next 17 years he worked at City Hall, making urban renewal the centerpiece of his efforts. By 1986, he had risen to council president, and he went on to assume the post of mayor in January 1987, when William Donald Schaefer left to become Maryland's governor.

"I loved that job," Mr. Burns told The Sun in 1994. "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."

But he served as mayor for only 11 months - going down to defeat in the 1987 mayoral primary to State's Attorney Kurt L. Schmoke. Mr. Burns ran again in 1991, only to lose again to the Yale- and Harvard-educated lawyer and one-time Rhodes scholar.

The 1987 mayoral contest was among the closest in city history - with Mr. Burns falling some 5,000 votes short and claiming that polls published by The Sun that showed him trailing by as much as 30 points in the campaign had hindered fund raising.

A rare politician

"Du was a man who got his degree on the street. He wasn't a scholar. He wasn't an Oxford man. But he had such great common sense," Mr. Schaefer, now Maryland's comptroller, said last night. "He's the kind of guy who is rare in politics now.

"Many politicians are worried about whether they're going to be elected to the next highest office. He didn't have any airs about him," Mr. Schaefer added. "He's the old-time, caring politician. He used to go out of his way to help people. That's what made him so great."

Mr. Schmoke recalled Mr. Burns as "a straightforward, down-to-earth guy."

"He was a nouns and verbs man," Mr. Schmoke said. "He didn't give you a lot of flowery language and try to sugar-coat things when there were tough decisions that had to be made. You knew where he stood all the time."

In his first eight months as mayor, Mr. Burns created the first city program to help the homeless, started several housing initiatives, found money to keep five imperiled library branches from closing and increased school funding - without raising taxes, laying off workers or cutting services.

As mayor, Mr. Burns stressed the need to improve city schools, and - using authority that Baltimore mayors no longer enjoy - imposed a limit on the size of kindergarten classes, Mr. Schmoke said.

`Du knows'

Mr. Burns' campaign bumper sticker in 1987 was "Du Knows Baltimore," and Mr. Schmoke said it was apt.

"That was really true," he said. "He knew a lot about the city's history and what made things work."

In politics, he started as a precinct worker, rose to ward boss, and first won election to the City Council in 1971. He was its vice president from 1977 to 1982, after Walter S. Orlinsky - caught up in a bribery scandal - resigned as president and council colleagues elected Mr. Burns to succeed him.

He was the first black president of the council, and in the next year's municipal election kept the job with his only citywide victory at the polls.

For more than a decade, he was chairman of the council's influential Urban Affairs Committee and held evening hearings all over town, including church basements and back alleys, to engage city neighborhoods in the process of urban renewal.

"That was a big innovation and a big deal to him," former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said last night. "When people didn't like what the urban renewal plan for their area said, he would always say, `You got to go to the meetings.'"

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