Everyone In D.C. has a Marion Barry Story
I encourage you to read the column by Angie Whitehurst, from which I borrowed
this headline. Marion Barry left us unexpectedly at age 78, suffering from heart disease. Since the “Mayor-for-Life’s” death Sunday Nov. 23, countless reflections have poured forth.
From cotton picker to civil rights activist, mayor to prisoner, to council member—the man certainly saw it all. He gave many Washingtonians their first jobs, and embarrassed many others with his crimes. Nevertheless, over one hundred community members held a vigil outside of the Barry’s home the day of his passing, and over 20,000 signatures have been collected for a Change.org petition requesting that TMZ remove their “distasteful” headline “Crack Mayor Dead at 78.” As Ward 8 Council Member, Barry was no stranger to homelessness or the pages of Street Sense. He spent a night in 801 East Men’s Shelter to gain insight into city services He stood by Councilwoman Yvette Alexander of Ward 7 in 2008 to resist Mayor Adrian Fenty’s closing of the Franklin School Shelter. A public memorial service will be held on Dec. 6 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, with memorial events as early as Thursday Dec. 4 at the Wilson Building.
—Eric Falquero, Editor-in-Chief
I was the first person in line for Obama’s second presidential election in Ward 2. It was freezing at the polling station at 16th and P Streets. I was shivering outside at 4 am. A car drove up and an elderly white couple stepped out. They were older than me, so I let them have my place and became number three. A crowd of yuppies began to gather behind us. The elderly couple and I began sharing anecdotes about DC with each other and the forming line of voters.
I was born in DC, but my childhood and young adult status was spent between Philadelphia PA and the service (US Army) at Fort Bragg – which lead to the Dominican Republic and Germany. I returned to DC to be with my grandmother. All I knew of Marion Barry was the newspaper and television accounts produced by the dominant culture. The people I was around did not discuss politics with me (my grandma and her friends on East Capitol Street). I eventually moved to Dupont Circle.
Someone made some disparaging remarks about Mr. Barry and I excused myself from participating; I knew the reputation the dominant culture had. The white couple turned out to be Irish community activists and very supportive of Mr. Barry to my astonishment. Ah, diversity.
They said Mr. Barry invited them to go with him to the headquarters of the Black Panther Party. I was all ears by now. When they arrived, Mr. Barry engaged the gatekeeper in lively discussion. They argued for some time. Apparently, Mr. Barry could enter, minus his friends. But he wanted nothing if the couple couldn’t attend also. The argument went back and forth and the group was about to disperse when Mr. Barry had a revelation. “You, of course, have heard of the “Black Irish,” he asked the gatekeeper. They were all admitted. Later the rollers (police) showed up and had the building surrounded. The couple confided that everyone escaped through a tunnel that let out three or four blocks away.
—Judson Williams, Vendor
My first encounter with “Hizzoner” was a signed letter (which I now treasure highly) informing me that, as a resident of “Washington 20016 Bethesda Maryland,” unfortunately I would not be allowed to sit on the Citizens’ Board of the DC Landmarks Preservation Commission.
A few years after getting the letter I met him briefly at a private affair at a baroque Asiatic-style brasserie favored by my lady friend. In our matching faux fur vests and jeans, we sashayed into the midst of a bunch of stuffy political nabobs and the jovial, mustachioed Chief of City Hall. “How do, my good friends,” he glad-handed us vigorously.
And then, shortly after completing his time served for the unfortunate ‘Sting’ experience at the former Vista International Hotel, a re-invigorated Marion Barry greeted me, from the stage of the Lincoln Theatre, in the company of Johnny Allem, a longtime icon of Substance Recovery leadership in our city; at his right was Frank Foster, the leader of the great Count Basie Orchestra. I was new to sobriety and it was a thrill to clasp hands with Barry, who had successfully endured so many of life’s challenges.
Though I never had the good fortune to receive one of Marion and Cora’s Thanksgiving turkey donations, that annual gesture fully illustrates to me the warm and loving lengths he’d travel to make the less fortunate members of the community feel valued.
—Chris Shaw, “The Cowboy Poet”
Marion Barry was more than the “Mayor for Life;” he was my friend. I was introduced to him by my sister, Cynthia, about five years ago. Not only did he support me with Street Sense, but he also supported me when I was fighting for custody of my children.
He gave me advice on being a good father and always being there for my children. Barry had personal problems of his own, but he always took the time to be concerned about mine when we saw each other.
One time he was passing by CVS and didn’t have time to talk. He yelled out the window
“Remember what I said Phillip, take care of those children!”
It meant a lot, and those words stuck with me. He did so much for so many people – he’ll be missed. Rest in peace Marion Barry, Friend for Life.
—Phillip Black, Vendor
As a longtime Ward 8 resident and a lifelong Washingtonian, I have nothing but respect and thanks for the work Marion Barry put in for all DC residents. I really take issue with those folks who use someone’s shortcomings and faults as a way to paint a picture of someone’s life that is far from the truth of who they were and how much they gave to their community. Anytime someone speaks truth to power, which Marion Berry always did, there are those who would try to discredit his words and actions.
The one thing Marion Berry left me with was the memory of him holding court on the fifth floor of the Wilson Building. He sat and talked with the media and those of us in the advocacy and service community, while we waited for the city council to enact a policy that put $100 million into the housing production fund annually. He said to get the leadership and policy we wanted, we had to organize. We had to build better organizations in our community.
Now more than ever, his words hold true. Wards 7 and 8 are the last chance we have to truly preserve affordable housing in this city and the gentrifiers are already at the gates. Anacostia is one of the most beautiful places in Washington, DC, with views that let you see for miles and miles, and the last place to receive new development and businesses. We have to organize – not tomorrow – but today.
—Robert Warren, Vendor
I am a native Washingtonian and can remember the days when Marion was the city’s mayor. I was in elementary school then and I have to say our schools did have a lot of programs that advanced learning. I remember the safety patrol and all of the parades that took place in Washington. Most of those events were attended by Barry himself. Although we used to laugh and joke about certain issues, it is clear that Barry cared for his people. In this town, you see a lot of things, and having a voice for the poor was something about the “Mayor for Life” we should all remember. Things like the safety patrol parade and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. Things like his involvement with homeless advocate Mitch Snyder and the Community for Creative Nonviolence to his Civil Rights Movement roots. I have even seen pictures of Barry and the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “He was one of us,” many say. He attended a rally for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Fund in 2009, which I reported on. Barry called for freedom by saying “let my people go.” I can only use what is left of Barry to continue the fight for Chocolate City. The nation’s capital will miss you. Rest in paradise, Mayor for Life Marion Barry.
—Reginald Black, Vendor