Clarence 'Du' Burns, 84, Dies; Baltimore's First Black Mayor

By Richard Pearson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 14, 2003; Page B06

Clarence H. "Du" Burns, 84, who rose from high school locker room attendant to become Baltimore's first black mayor, died Jan. 12 of kidney failure in the geriatric care facility of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital.

The lifelong Baltimore resident began his political career as a teenager in a Democratic Party club. He entered the City Council in 1971, served as its vice president from 1977 to 1982 and then as council president until becoming mayor in 1987.

He became mayor upon the resignation of William Donald Schaefer to take the office of Maryland governor. Mayor Burns was defeated in the 1987 Democratic Party mayoral primary by Kurt L. Schmoke.

Mayor Burns had been a longtime ally of Schaefer, now Maryland's comptroller, and acted as City Council floor leader for such Schaefer mayoral endeavors as the downtown Inner Harbor development legislation in the 1970s.

During his 11 months as the city's chief executive, Mayor Burns started the city's first homeless program, funneled increased funds to schools and public libraries and built public housing. And he did it all without raising taxes.

Upon learning of Mayor Burns's death, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley told a Baltimore television reporter that the former mayor "really epitomized that hard-working, roll-up-your-sleeves . . . attitude that made him such a great mayor and great councilman."

Schmoke said of his former rival: "Even though we were competitors for the mayor's position, I had a tremendous respect for him. He built an organization in East Baltimore that not only won elections but really provided a lot of public services for people."

While rising through city Democratic organizations from precinct worker to ward leader, Mayor Burns spent 22 years as a high school locker room attendant, a job he had secured through political connections with then-Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro.

He got his nickname, Du, in the 1940s because he was always "doing things for people." He secured much of this help for constituents through a political club he started in East Baltimore, which became the Eastside Democratic Organization.

Mayor Burns was born in East Baltimore. His father was a laborer and his mother cleaned homes. The future mayor graduated from high school and sold newspapers and vegetables before securing his job at the high school.

After he entered the City Council, he fought for increased urban renewal and applied the lessons of classic big-city politics to improving the lives of his constituents.

At his 1987 inauguration, Mayor Burns confronted critics who said that "there are those who hold the opinion that my beginnings are too humble to be mayor . . . that my academic credentials are inadequate . . . that I am not eloquent enough to speak as mayor."

He went on to quote slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.: "Judge not a man for the heights he has attained but the depths from which he has come."

Mayor Burns also described himself as "part establishment and part of the other half -- the average man, rough around the edges, a modest wage earner." He added: "I am from the small city streets. I am John Q. Public, like your neighbors. . . . I am and have been and will be many things to good citizens. But today, I am mayor."

Survivors include his wife of 53 years, the former Edith Phillips of Baltimore; a daughter; two sisters; and a granddaughter.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company