Wanda Alston saw more than her share of injustice in her nearly 46 years. As she was growing up in segregated Newport News, Va., her schoolteachers made plain that they didn't expect much from "a Negro," she told friends. At home, her father treated her mother like a servant. Years later, her sister was raped and murdered.
All of that compelled Alston to fight for change, friends said, propelling her into the women's movement and, later, into the upper echelons of gay activists in the nation's capital. Her hardscrabble past also toughened her, friends said, making her fierce and impatient and sometimes abrasive.
On Wednesday afternoon, Alston apparently was still fighting when she was attacked with a knife in her home. Her partner, Stacey Long, 37, found her hours later in a pool of blood in the living room, defensive wounds on her arms, police said.
Yesterday, District police arrested William Parrot Jr., 38, who lived two doors away from her duplex on East Capitol Street NE. He was charged with first-degree murder and was expected to appear in court today. Police said Parrot knew Alston, but they would not discuss a motive.
The news brought some relief to Alston's friends, who gathered last night in a Lincoln Park rowhouse to watch televised coverage from police headquarters. But they remained deeply saddened that Alston had been struck down so soon after finding love and professional fulfillment.
"The terrible irony is that she had so totally gotten her life together, moved up into the mayor's Cabinet and was a real important influence in the community," said Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women, whom friends described as Alston's mentor. "I keep thinking to myself, 'Well, maybe this is what she was supposed to do.' "
After two decades in the District -- and more than three years as Mayor Anthony A. Williams's liaison to the gay and lesbian community -- Alston was a familiar figure in District political circles, a feisty, dreadlocked woman with steamroller political skills. Relentlessly loyal to Williams (D), Alston sometimes enraged fellow activists. But her unflinching commitment to their cause also won their respect.
"Wanda was not an easy friend, but she was a good friend," said Philip Pannell, a Ward 8 activist, who didn't speak to Alston for nearly two years after she refused to support his run for D.C. Democratic Party chairmanship. They resumed their friendship last summer, Pannell said, after he watched Alston dress down a national convention of gay Democrats in a Providence, R.I., hotel.
"She showed her natural black lesbian [self] at that meeting. It was the gay movement, and the gay movement is basically a white thing," Pannell said. "She stood up and she said: 'I was here four years ago, and I talked about your lack of inclusion of black people. And here I am back. And look at all y'all. It's just a bunch of white men.' "
Pannell, too, grew up in Newport News, which he described as a harshly conservative town where support was strong in the 1960s for the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. Alston, the second-youngest daughter in a large working-class family, told Long that white youths teased her in school and that teachers "let her know there was something wrong with being a Negro."
"I think she felt somewhat scarred by it," Long said yesterday. "It's something she always carried with her."
Alston also hated how her father treated her mother, Long said, making her deeply fearful of relationships. Alston left home soon after finishing high school, joining the Air Force and later attending college.
Alston moved to the District in the early 1980s, living with a brother and taking a series of respectable but unremarkable jobs. She developed a cocaine addiction that she overcame in 1990, Long said.
Once sober, Alston began to blossom as a political activist. She worked as a NOW volunteer and attracted Ireland's attention. Ireland hired Alston as her executive assistant. Over four years, Alston organized five national marches and helped lead a NOW delegation to the World Conference on Women in Beijing.
"When I met her, she was scarcely more than a kid. I don't think she felt wholly at home anywhere," Ireland said. "And I watched her grow into this incredibly focused and efficient and self-confident woman."
Alston left NOW in 1996, and briefly formed her own political consulting firm. She later worked as events manager for the the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights organization. She joined the District government in 1999, was named liaison to the gay community in 2001, and last year persuaded Williams to elevate her job to a Cabinet position.
Meantime, Alston found love through a Yahoo ad. Last year, surrounded by friends, she proposed to Long at Georgia Brown's restaurant, and Long, director of Bread for the City's Southeast center, accepted. In December, Alston gave Long a diamond ring.
The women planned to get married next in June and live together in Alston's duplex. The plan was to bring Alston's elderly mother there as well. Alston had picked out a spot for her mother's garden.
"She was such a warrior, so strong on the outside, but such a marshmallow and sweet and tender on the inside," Long said of Alston. "I'm so glad I had an opportunity to be part of her inside self."
Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.