Clarence H. Du Burns, first black mayor of Baltimore

Sun Reporter

Clarence H. Du Burns
1918 - 2003

Clarence H. Du Burns was a self-made politician who rose through grass-roots involvement in his native East Baltimore to become the city's first African-American mayor.

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.

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.'"

As he ran for mayor in 1987, Mr. Burns took some of the credit for new low-income housing for East Baltimore, Dunbar High School, East Baltimore Medical Center on Eager Street, the Hyatt Hotel and Harborplace. He once joked that 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 where a portrait of him hangs.

There is an indoor soccer arena in Canton named after him. As a councilman, he helped find millions of dollars to build Ashland Park Mews, an urban renewal home-ownership development.

Some community activists and city officials contended that he had played only a minor role in those projects.

But then-Gov. Schaefer and Mr. Orlinsky gave Mr. Burns a lot of credit, saying that he provided an important link between the City Hall and the neighborhoods that would be affected by the projects.

Mr. Burns' critics called him a rubber stamp for Mr. Schaefer. Mr. Burns rarely disagreed publicly with the mayor, but he said that was because they'd hash out any differences and work out compromises in private.

"I'd sit on bills, and he'd call me down and say, `Du, goddamn it, we've got to get this done,'" Mr. Burns said in a 1987 interview. "And I'd say, `OK, then this is the way it's going to be done.'"

During the 1987 campaign, some black leaders criticized Mr. Burns for not playing a more aggressive public role during the 1960s civil rights movement. Mr. Burns said he opted for the quieter course of trying to change things through the system.

The 'roads scholar'

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said Mr. Burns was "a real mentor" to her when she joined the council in 1977. She recalled the warning he gave her about one of the first pieces of legislation she introduced as a freshman councilwoman - a bill calling for an 11 p.m. curfew for pet dogs.

"The first thing he said was, `Rikki, there's better lobbying for dogs than there is for people,'" she said. "`You'll never be able to get any legislation against dogs. Give up. Just don't do it.'"

Ms. Spector said she didn't follow his advice - and saw her bill go nowhere.

She supported Mr. Burns over Mr. Schmoke in 1987 and 1991. "He was the real `roads' scholar," the councilwoman said of Mr. Burns. "He knew how to get the roads fixed."

Mr. Burns was born to Selena and Clarence Burns on Sept. 13, 1918. His mother often cleaned houses for a dollar and car fare. His father, a laborer, had been a ward organizer and ardent admirer of then-Gov. Albert C. Ritchie.

"I remember when Governor Ritchie visited my father and uncle at our house," Mr. Burns said in a 1988 interview. "He used to give my two brothers, three sisters and me a dollar each. My father would let each of us have 15 cents and the rest went into the bank."

Building leaders

At 19 - though not of the then-legal voting age of 21 - Mr. Burns registered as a Democrat and became the first black member of the 7th Ward's powerful Bohemian Club. The young Mr. Burns began corralling votes for members while building his own political base.

Mr. Schmoke said the Eastside Democratic Organization that resulted was "in some respects a throwback to an older era in American politics, but it was very effective."

"What he did was build an organization that not only won elections but provided services to people," said Mr. Schmoke. "He created a community development corporation that provided housing, established a health care center and worked in partnership with Johns Hopkins to create jobs for thousands of families in East Baltimore.

"When you think about what political organizations did at the beginning of the 20th century in places like Boston and New York and Chicago, that was the kind of organization he created. What he was able to do was build several generations of political leadership out of East Baltimore."

Educated in a segregated public school system, Mr. Burns served in the Army Air Forces in the latter years of World War II and attained the rank of staff sergeant.

Jazz all night long

He studied for 2 1/2 years at the Larry London Music School and was an expert on New Orleans Dixieland jazz, with a vast collection of records. He would readily tell of his early love of jazz, traveling to New York's 52nd Street as a young man to hear the great musicians.

"Billie Holiday was a good friend of mine; she lived on Bond Street, about four blocks from my house," he once recalled. "I would go up on a train to New York and she'd be singing all night long in some club and she'd let me stay in her apartment up there."

Last night, Del. Howard P. Rawlings said Mr. Burns' death represents "the passing of an extraordinary period in the African-American political life."

"He was a consummate politician in the sense that he enjoyed his work, he reached out to the total community - not just the African-American community, but the white community, the Jewish community, the Italian community, the Polish community. And he was well loved by all of us." He died at the age of 84.

-- Johnathon E. Briggs and Laura Vozzella
Originally published Jan. 13, 2003

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad