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Mayor Theodore M. Berry

By January 4, 2024No Comments
Theodore Berry talking on the phone while at work.
Theodore M. Berry was a civil rights leader and the first African American Mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Freemasonry places a profound emphasis on the preservation and appreciation of history and tradition. At the heart of this commitment lies the recognition that understanding the past is essential for shaping a meaningful and purposeful future. We look to the past, to the men who have shaped our fraternity and society as a repository of wisdom, a source of inspiration, and a guide for moral and ethical conduct.

Beyond the pages of history, Theodore M. Berry stands as a symbol of resilience, leadership, and an unwavering commitment to justice. A distinguished member of Prince Hall Freemasonry, his Masonic path was a foundation for his dedication to equality, brotherhood, charity, and enlightenment. His accomplishments in life echoed the core tenets of Freemasonry, and by reflecting on his journey, we aim to celebrate not only a remarkable individual but also the enduring influence of Freemasonry in shaping leaders committed to positive change.


Theodore M. Berry was born to a low-income family on November 8, 1905, in Maysville, Kentucky. His mother was a laundress and was deaf and mute, communicating with her friends and family not through sign language but through signals of her own making. She moved the family to Cincinnati, Ohio when he was young. Because his family experienced poverty, Ted grew up working all types of jobs. He sold newspapers, shined shoes, shoveled coal – whatever he had to do to help support his mother. He learned to speak and enunciate with the utmost clarity so his mother could easily read his lips. Undoubtedly, this unique manner of speaking served him later in life as a community leader and politician.

In 1914, Theodore enrolled in the Harriet Beecher Stowe School for underprivileged migrant African-American children. His principal at the school was Jennie D. Porter, who became the first African-American woman to earn a PhD at the University of Cincinnati in 1928. Ted clearly had an astounding aptitude for learning, as ten years later, he became the first Black Valedictorian at Woodward High School. 

However, the events leading up to graduation are significant in the story of Ted Berry. He won an essay contest with his entry “The Chaos Beyond,” submitted under the pseudonym Thomas Playfair after an all-white panel had rejected his entry the first time. To add insult to injury, he graduated at the top of his high school class but was forbidden to walk next to a white classmates at graduation.

A newspaper clipping of an article titles “Berry Accepts Mayoral Reins”
A newspaper clipping highlights Berry’s election as Cincinnati mayor. 

Law School and Legal Career

Following his high school graduation, Berry enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. To pay his way through school, he worked tirelessly in his free time outside of class, including as an iron worker at Newport Rolling Mill, a page at the Public Library of Cincinnati, a waiter for a railroad company, and a kitchen hand at Fort Scott Camp for Boys.

While completing his undergraduate degree, Berry won first place in a national examination of Black History given by Omega Psi Phi and the Jones Oratorical Prize. Though Berry was the only African American contestant for the Jones Prize, he won by unanimous decision after delivering his speech “The Significance of the Minority.”

After earning his BA, Berry enrolled at UC Law, saying, “When I was in high school, my elder sister and brothers were encouraging me to study medicine. When I got to college, I found I was more interested in the science of people as they relate to their community. So, I chose to go into law and, after that, politics.”

He continued working his way through law school and, in 1932, was admitted to the Ohio Bar. Just 26 years old, Berry soon became the youngest president of the Cincinnati NAACP. Over the next 14 years, he pursued several significant civil rights lawsuits in the city. Notably, Theodore sued Crosley Radio, a prominent Cincinnati corporation, for refusing to employ Black workers. He also took on the Board of Education for having no Black members.

WWII and Cincinnati Politics

While Ted was president of the local NAACP, he became the first black assistant prosecutor in Hamilton County in 1939. After the United States entered World War II, Berry took a job working in the Office of War Information as a morale officer, which required him to spend time in Washington, D.C. In 1945, Berry famously defended three black Army Air Force officers – members of the Tuskegee Airmen – who had protested a segregated officer’s club in Indiana. He won acquittal for two of the men. It took 50 years, but in 1995, the Air Force pardoned the third man who had been convicted.

After the war, Ted Berry stepped down from his position as president of the NAACP and set his sights on politics. He was elected to the first of three consecutive terms on the city council in 1949. He was chairman of the finance committee in 1953 and led a controversial battle to create a city income tax.

In 1955, he was elected vice-mayor under Charles P. Taft after a tough city council race. That year, Berry was the top vote-getter and appeared poised to become Mayor but was undermined by racism when voters, at the council’s urging, abolished the system of proportional representation previously used in Cincinnati.

Nevertheless, when he became vice-mayor, he tearfully recognized the moment’s significance, remarking, “I am fully aware that a new page in the history of our great city is written today.”

Thedore M. Berry and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Thedore M. Berry and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

To Washington and Back

After Berry lost the 1955 election, he became deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the South. He and Thurgood Marshall (a Freemason and future U.S. Supreme Court justice) traveled from city to city – at significant personal risk – to file lawsuits on behalf of oppressed minorities. He also created the Community Action Commission in Cincinnati, which caught the attention of Sargent Shriver, who spearheaded the creation of the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty during the 1960s. 

His efforts to combat poverty and inequity in Cincinnati and beyond so impressed President Lyndon Johnson that in 1965, he appointed Berry to head the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Community Action Programs. In 1969, Berry returned to Cincinnati and was asked to return to the City Council after the death of fellow Charterite Myron Bush in 1971. 

Theodore M. Berry was elected as Cincinnati’s first Black Mayor the following year and served for four years. After he stepped down as Mayor in 1975, he retired from political life.

Death and Legacy

Brother Ted Berry was a Prince Hall Freemason, an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and an Alpha Alpha Alpha chapter member. He was one of the founders who helped charter the Alpha Rho Lambda Chapter on December 21, 1929, in Columbus, Ohio. The NAACP honored Berry in 1979 by awarding him the William Robert Ming Advocacy Award for the spirit of financial and personal sacrifice displayed in his legal work.

Berry died on October 15, 2000, just three weeks shy of his 95th birthday. Over 700 mourners paid their respects, and flags were flown at half-mast at City Hall and Fountain Square in honor of his passing. Cincinnati has raised several monuments to Berry, including the Theodore M. Berry Head Start Center in the West End, Ted Berry Way at the Banks, and the Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park on the riverfront.

Today, Brother Berry’s son, the Honorable Ted N. Berry, carries on his father’s important work by serving Cincinnati’s people as a Municipal Court judge. 

Throughout his distinguished career, Ted Berry dedicated himself to improving society, embodying the Masonic commitment to charity and benevolence. His leadership, integrity, and compassion reflected the virtues that Freemasonry seeks to instill in its members. This great man’s legacy inspires current and future Freemasons to uphold the values of the fraternity and continue the tradition of making meaningful contributions to their communities. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Ohio Masons who have left their mark on American politics read our features on William Burnham Woods and Thomas Worthington!