Du Burns was road not taken, but he was good for the city

January 14, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

CLARENCE H. Du Burns was the city of Baltimore's road not taken. He was one of those black people scuffling through the generations in shabby housing and jobs beneath their abilities, and he refused to let racism defeat or embitter him. And then, when he finally asked to be elected mayor on his own terms, he was rejected as a symbol of a discarded past.

He deserved better all his life. He died Sunday night, at 84, having spent his final years worrying that he had become a forgotten political footnote instead of a force of history. He was both, and he was more. He was one of our great healers in a nervous transitional time.

He was hungry to bring jobs and new schools and decent housing to blacks who felt they were long overdue. But he also understood anxious white people, sitting in their narrow little rowhouses with their own troubles, watching the neighborhoods change color and wondering what it meant for them.

He looked for common ground. He did it with humor, and with charm, and a history that crossed borders. When he ran for mayor in the summer of 1987, he walked into an Italian festival one weekend, accompanied by his friend, City Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro. Du put on a baseball cap with the Italian colors and wrapped one arm around Mimi.

"A lot of people don't know this," Du announced to the big crowd, "but I'm Italian. Now you take Mimi here. He's Italian by way of being born in Italy. I'm Italian by way of Belair Market."

Everybody at the old Festival Hall that day laughed out loud. Du called them all his half-brothers and half-sisters. He talked about the old days when he worked at the Palmisano stall at Belair Market, and how he had had to break ranks to back another candidate for mayor, but how the Palmisano family kept him on anyway because he was almost like part of the family."

Common ground, that was all. The power of familiar names and places, the sense that everybody had the same kinds of struggles. One of the joys at City Hall was watching Du and Mimi, in the autumn of their lives, discover each other. History said they wouldn't get along. They were products of a time of great racial suspiciousness. But they saw each other as men looking out for working people, and all the rest was nonsense.

Du Burns drifted into politics in an era when most blacks were Republicans. He remembered when Election Day walk-around money was $2, pretty good pay to knock on doors and make sure everybody voted. But the Democrats upped the ante to $5. They wanted to make inroads into black neighborhoods. To get the $5, you had to register as a Democrat, which Burns did. He was 19, not quite legal. But it was the practical thing to do.

He began to be the guy the Democrats contacted on Election Day. He'd dispense the money in his neighborhood, $5 at a clip, for the new kids to go knocking on people's doors. He discovered he liked the game, and liked all the connections.

"You get a chance to talk to judges, to meet the mayor," he said one afternoon years later. "People just look at you as the guy to get favors and things. They began to say, `Go up there and see him, he can do anything for you. They began to call me `Do.' It was `Do' Burns. But a lot of people got it mixed up with `Duke,' so I guess that's why they spell it `Du.' "

He had political connections, but they only took him so far. With City Hall's help, he got a municipal job - towel attendant in the boys' locker room at Dunbar High School. He didn't feel sorry for himself. He'd work overtime at Clifton Park, "wound up making as much money as anybody," he said. He kept the jobs as he worked his way through the political ranks, part of that first generation of blacks getting a halfway decent shot.

Back in the 1950s, he had a regular Saturday get-together in a place over at Monument and Dallas streets. Milton Allen and Ben Brown would be there, and Bob Watts and George Russell, all of them legal pioneers. Du would talk real politics to them.

One day years later, Allen remembered, "Du told me I'd be the state's attorney of Baltimore one day. I told him he was crazy. He told Bob Watts, `You'll be a Supreme Bench judge.' He told Brown, `You'll be a Juvenile Court master.' "

Allen became the city's first black state's attorney. Watts became a judge, and Brown became a judge and then city solicitor. "And I asked Du," Allen remembered, " `What are you going to be?' He knew politics, but he was working as the towel attendant at Dunbar then. And he said to me, `I'm going to be the City Council president.' He knew, see?"

He became mayor when William Donald Schaefer left City Hall to become governor. But, after 11 months in office, he went no further. He ran for election against Kurt L. Schmoke, who was perceived as the proud future. Schmoke was an Ivy League guy. Du had worked as a towel attendant. Schmoke was a Rhodes scholar. Du was the city of Baltimore's road not taken.

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