July 2, 2014

IT WAS hard to find anyone as proud of being from Prince George’s County as Wayne Keith Curry. Mr. Curry, who died Wednesday at age 63 after a battle with lung cancer, was a favorite son who overcame Prince George’s mostly white good-ol’-boy power structure and was elected twice in the 1990s as county executive, the top local job.

As the first African American to lead a major jurisdiction in the Washington suburbs, he was a symbol of black striving and ascendant power. And he was more than that: Mr. Curry was an effective leader of one of the nation’s biggest and most visible majority-black localities, a power broker of an emerging middle class that represented something new in America’s social fabric.

Mr. Curry, whose family moved to the county when he was a baby, had a long memory for the old Prince George’s, which he was instrumental in remaking and rebranding years later. Growing up in a segregated neighborhood of Cheverly, he was one of just two African Americans who crossed the tracks (literally) to attend fourth grade at formerly all-white Cheverly-Tuxedo Elementary School.

He and his brother were so regularly harassed after school that a police patrol car was assigned to escort them as they walked home in the afternoons. That helped — until the cops joined in the harassment by having the patrol car bump the backs of the boys’ legs as they walked.

By the time he was in junior high school, which he also helped to integrate, Mr. Curry was adept at what he called the “bi-cultural situation” — toggling between the white and black communities — a skill that served him well for his life as a politician and lawyer.


CHEVERLY, MD - JUNE 6: Former Prince Georges County Executive, Wayne Curry. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

In a race for ninth-grade president, he plastered the school with posters urging students to “vote for the man with the Florida tan.” He lost by a single vote to a white student whose allies counted the votes — a lifelong lesson for Mr. Curry in the importance of setting the rules by which others play.

He learned that lesson well, proving an adept political operator. In his first race for county executive, in 1994, he beat the candidate backed by the county’s bigwigs, including Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), now the state Senate president.

As county executive, Mr. Curry helped empower black businesses and his political proteges. He drove a hard bargain when he could. In bargaining with Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke over the building of what is now FedEx Field , he squeezed Cooke for a huge sports facility for county youths — part of what he called “the best stadium or arena deal in the country, ever.”

Mr. Curry never tired of boasting of Prince George’s progress, particularly its transformation from a largely white, rural and sparsely populated county to a majority-black jurisdiction of 900,000 people — where incomes rose as it evolved. “There’s something awfully special about being part of a community that’s one of a kind,” he said. “That’s a huge and hugely special kind of emblem to wear as a community.”