Weeks before his death, former Prince George’s County executive Wayne K. Curry made one last visit to his childhood home in Cheverly, Md.
The man who presided over Prince George’s emergence as one of the country’s most affluent majority-black counties got out of his silver Mercedes in front of a modest, two-story red brick house on State Street. But Curry, fighting against the last stages of lung cancer, did not have the energy to walk to the front door, so he leaned against the passenger door and talked about his life and his legacy.
Wearing a white baseball cap and white golf shirt, he recalled memories of growing up in the three-bedroom house with a father so stern that nothing that would come later in life — including integrating the local school and the rough and tumble of local politics — would frighten him.
“Being scared of white folks didn’t exist with me and my brothers,” Curry said with his rolling signature laugh. “My father’s nickname was Bull, and he earned every bit of that name. He told us, ‘You should fear me more than anybody.’ ”
Curry, the Washington region’s first African American county executive, used his charm, intelligence and political savvy to win office in 1994. He served two terms and came to symbolize the county’s transformation. Curry, a lifelong smoker who was diagnosed in August with lung cancer, died at age 63 on July 2. He was mourned and buried on Thursday.
Curry died a wealthy man but came from modest beginnings. His mother, Juliette Curry, was a secretary. His father, Eugene “Bull” Curry, was a shop teacher who became vice principal at Fairmont Heights High School, once an all-black school in the county.
“I thought he was cruel and unfair,” Curry recalled. “But I was thankful for the preparation for the challenges yet to come. These things were consequential and in many respects ironic.”
With his older brother Daryl, Curry integrated Cheverly-Tuxedo Elementary, Bladensburg Junior High and Bladensburg High School, from which he graduated in 1968. Forty-six years later, Curry journeyed through the area, reflecting on his vision for transforming a county that once was fiercely segregated. The talk during the drive revealed the story of a man who once stood outside a chain-link fence that kept him and other black kids out of a segregated pool but grew up to become a development lawyer and politician who championed black economic power. “Segregated meant, ‘Not you,’ ” Curry said.
His car pulled into the $30 million Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Center, which Curry negotiated in the FedEx stadium deal that brought the Redskins to Prince George’s. The complex has a six-lane indoor track, a gymnastic center and an aquatics center.
Curry walked to the brick wall of the complex and stood under the sign that bears his name. He stood for a series of last portraits. Then, exhausted, he returned to the waiting car. The car pulled out of the parking lot and traveled back down Route 202, passing once-vacant land now filled with rising office buildings and huge new homes on big lots with clipped lawns.
His vision, Curry said, was to slow the number of garden apartments built and to bring more executive housing to the county, which he said was dominated by affordable housing when he was elected in 1994.
“A lot of it was willfulness, hard-headedness, stubbornness and determination. I never saw a reason this community could not succeed,” he said. “We had more affordable housing than any jurisdiction in the entire region. And yet almost like little parrots, people here — as a theme — were clamoring for more affordable housing. I couldn’t understand that.”
The real challenge, he said, was attracting commercial development. “To make the commercial base valuable, we had to suspend the load that affordable housing brings. So while you are trying to grow a commercial base, you have to stop adding to it affordable housing.”
The next major issue was to end court-ordered school desegregation. “We had to get out of busing,” Curry said. “Even 30 years later with a majority-black population, a black county executive, a predominantly black county council, many of the stakeholders said, ‘Don’t do it.’ I said, ‘Do you really think the federal court will be better for your children than you are?’ You are in the majority.”
As the car cruised closer to Upper Marlboro, Curry said he felt enormous pride in the growth of the county.
“It comes more from the idea that we established that you could actually do what you set your mind to do. If you tell yourself you cannot, you will not. If you tell yourself you cannot win, you will not win. If you tell yourself you can’t build executive housing, you won’t build executive housing. ”
Curry looked out the window. “These things are manifestations, fulfillments of a dream,” he said. “I was merely an agent of making it better. There were plenty of people who had a vision. What you had to do was overcome the pessimism. Most people were pessimistic that we could be anything but Li’l Abner.”
His experience with segregation helped him carry out his vision, Curry said. “The things I thought were painful, negative experiences turned out to be positives. I had a reference point that enabled me to stay resolute when the odds were against me. And, of course, there is the pugnacious side.” He laughed.
“When somebody comes and tells you what you can’t do, I say, ‘Oh, yes, I can. Just watch me.’ ”
Then the silver Mercedes turned onto Waynesford Drive, a street named after Curry.