The man who chose to 'do'; At 80, Baltimore's first black mayor, Clarence 'Du' Burns, is out of politics but still enjoys the role of exemplary elder statesman.


It's kind of hard to believe him at first when he says he has nothing to complain about beyond the pain and frailty of old age, or his diabetes. That perpetual look of anxious solicitude on his face, those eyes liquid with sad concern, all suggest otherwise. But Clarence "Du" Burns, Baltimore's first black mayor, makes you accept that he holds no grudges and lives without any bitter might-have-beens. So he never did get to play his saxophone with Duke Ellington's band. He never really expected to.

So he never did become Baltimore's first elected black mayor. That was a dream probably never seriously dreamt, but for a few months in 1987. That was the year Kurt L. Schmoke defeated Burns in the Democratic primary and basically ended the older man's long political career. It wasn't exactly like knocking out Joe Louis, though it might have seemed that way to Schmoke, especially after Burns' sad comeback attempt in 1991.

In January 1987, City Council President Burns ascended to the mayor's office after William Donald Schaefer ascended to the governor's. Burns ran the city for nearly a year.

"People seemed to like what I did when I was mayor," Burns says, adding with a soft, deprecating touch, "Just wasn't enough of them." He is not less boastful than most politicians; he just does it subtly enough that you don't notice.

What Burns achieved can't be taken from him, and he revels in that knowledge. And if you are one of those who measure success more by how far a person travels than by where he or she eventually winds up, you'll have to agree that Burns traveled a lot further than his successor.

Schmoke, the handsome, clean-cut, earnest, high-school football hero, Ivy Leaguer, Rhodes scholar, etc., was trained from a young age to make good: Success was only a few steps away -- inevitable, in some people's minds.

For Burns, who famously worked as a locker-room attendant, success of the magnitude of which we are speaking was an incomprehensible distance. He never went to college; he went to the Army (where he learned to play the sax). He was groomed to be a ward heeler, not the city's executive. But because congeniality comes naturally to him, he wound up knowing just about everybody in East Baltimore, got himself elected to the City Council and, owing to his valuable political service to Schaefer, reached what was to him a dizzying height.

And but for a few more than 5,000 votes, he would have been propelled higher still, for in the primary election of 1987 he very nearly snatched Kurt Schmoke's future right out from under his nose.

Baltimore probably never had two mayors follow one another with more distinctly different approaches to their business than Burns and Schmoke. Schmoke is full of theory and broad knowledge of governance. He is thoroughly educated and doesn't try to conceal it. He may be less hypocritical than most politicians. He is a policy man trying to find the way to make things better generally.

Burns' approach during his brief tenure at the top was to implement his traditional way of doing things citywide. He did things for people. When he was a ward leader, as his father was before him, he did the things his father did: He helped people personally, individually. Burns scouted out small jobs for people who needed them; he arranged loans to avoid eviction for those he considered deserving; he'd see that bail was posted for the errant son of a constituent.

That was how he operated, and it won him a lot of friends. It's also how he got that peculiar nickname which sounds vaguely French, but is actually a Burnsian modification of the verb "do," which he didn't think would look as classy in print as "Du."

At age 80, Clarence "Du" Burns lives a slow, relaxed life. He gets up around 9 a.m., and takes maybe a little longer than he used to getting out of his pajamas. He sits around his cozy house, all filled with the resonant detritus of nearly six decades of marriage to the formidable Edith, just three years younger than himself.

They do a little bickering, Du and Edith, but who wouldn't after all that time?

"She wants to move out of here," he says, referring to their tight rowhouse in the 2600 block of Mura Street. "This has been my house for 43 years."

He sits on the couch, placid, like an old lion, one who never bit anybody. In his den, this house, he is surrounded by familiar bric-a-brac. The couch is graced by a knitted throw of many colors. Above, on the ersatz brick "family wall," are the images of that family: his wife, daughter, granddaughter, relatives further removed.

The furniture is built for comfort, the couch he sits upon, the two chairs that face it across a cluttered coffee table. On every side are references to his Catholic faith: a statue of the Virgin Mary on a table, other representations of her on the wall, two small holy- water fonts near the door. An immense ceramic flower vase sits on the floor.

"I don't want to move," he says, referring again to what may be the serial marital dispute. "We know everybody in this block, all around the corner. We can leave if we want, but if we do, we leave much of us behind."

Having said that, he at least hints he might be moving in his wife's direction. Mura Street runs only two blocks between Lakewood and Luzerne through East Baltimore. The street is neat as a pin in a neighborhood that has become, well, not so neat. A neighborhood, Burns says, "I used to love, but now only like."

Du Burns is not a big player in city politics these days, but he's not faded away entirely. He says he still serves on the board of the Baltimore International College, the local culinary school, gives speeches here and there. He visits friends in Baltimore County and downtown. Velleggia's of Little Italy has become his favorite haunt now that the Palmer House on Eutaw has closed. People with political aspirations look him up, for an introduction here, a little sage counsel there.

"They come to me," he says. "Some I accommodate, some I don't."

Of late, people have been looking for his support for various potential or actual candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor, which in this town is tantamount to being elected. People behind City Council President Lawrence A. Bell and Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP, have called, he says. Occasionally more important figures visit. Governors park their limousines outside the small house on Mura Street.

Asked for a judgment on the Schmoke years, he considers for a moment.

"It was good and bad," he said. "The good was the way he mobilized [black] people into being his people."

And the bad?

"He would favor mostly the whites. Many black people thought they had a problem with him for that. Middle-class black people had a shot at things, some. But poorer people, they didn't get much from him. They're glad he's going."

All this, he insists, is just his "personal opinion," as if to neutralize any sting his words may contain. But they reveal Burns as an intensely race-conscious man. This is not to suggest even faintly that he's a racist, or racial militant, or even a single-issue politician. Nobody ever said that. It's simply that having lived in Baltimore his entire life and having been a part of its political process has made him aware of how badly black people, especially poor black people, have fared during their collective history here. Until three or four decades ago, their participation in city life was sharply curbed, their influence over the city's economic and social development faint indeed.

This may be the biggest difference between the first black mayor of Baltimore and the first elected black mayor of Baltimore. Schmoke, throughout his three terms, strove, with some lapses but often with success, to appeal to a kind of modern notion of color-blindness. Burns has remained tightly linked to the understanding of his world he absorbed as a boy growing up poor in East Baltimore. It forms the political syllogism of his life: blacks are poor; he is concerned with poor folk; therefore he is concerned with blacks.

He knows much has changed. He's the living proof. But he also learned, in the election of 1987, that not all blacks in the city were poor. A lot more of them than perhaps he expected had become professionals: doctors, lawyers, mostly in West Baltimore, not so much on the east side, his part of town.

"I didn't go to college," he said. "I guess I just didn't fit in with them."

Edith Burns arrives home trailing a handyman to fix the doorbell, which hasn't been working lately. She seems to be a brisk woman, determined to be busy, in contrast to her man on the couch. She strides through the house, through the middle of the former mayor's interview on her way to the basement to supervise the bell repair.

The mayor is talking now mostly about incidental things. Like his saxophone, which many years ago he lent to Edith's nephew. He asks, as if the idea just occurred to him, why he never returned it. But when it comes to important things, like the duration of their marriage, Edith Burns joins the conversation from below, correcting her husband's abridgment of it to "about 50 years."

"We've been married 59 years," she says in a loud voice. "In November we'll be married 60 years."

She returns to the living room and adds in a softer voice: "Most people change cars more than that."

Asked if he ever goes on vacation, Burns says his favorite place is New Orleans, which he visits nearly every year.

"Want to know why? Because it is a city built around the achievements of black people."

Also, he adds, he loves the music.

"Edith," he says, "She don't like Dixieland jazz."

This he gets right. Edith nods her assent as she passes through on her way back to the basement.

"I don't like Dixieland jazz," she says.

She is asked what kind of music she likes. "I like jazz," she says. "Just jazz."

"There's nothing like Dixieland jazz, the first music made by black people," rebuts the first black mayor of Baltimore, determined to get in the last word.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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