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D.C. First Lady Braved Her Husband's Storms With Quiet Resolve

By Patricia Sullivan and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 7, 2007

Effi Barry, 63, the former first lady of Washington who with grace and stoicism endured the public ordeal of her then-husband's arrest in an infamous sex and drug scandal, died yesterday at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. She had acute myeloid leukemia.

The disease, a blood-cell cancer that begins in the bone marrow, led her to wage a campaign encouraging more African Americans to be part of the registry for bone marrow transplants.

In 1978, Barry, a onetime model working as a city restaurant inspector, was thrust into the public spotlight when she married Marion Barry as he campaigned to become the second elected mayor of Washington. A regal presence at social functions, she was expected in some quarters to be in the mold of Jacqueline Kennedy but early on drew cool and sometimes hostile feelings from the city's African American establishment, owing to a mix of factors including her reserved demeanor, lack of experience in the civil rights movement and light skin.

Years later, the resentment turned to respect when the mayor was captured on videotape smoking crack cocaine and seeking sex with an FBI informant. Barry, who was at home with their 8-year-old son when her husband was arrested, sat through every day of his 1990 trial in the front row, calmly hooking a rug with a poised expression on her face. Her quiet resolve won her many admirers, even while she quietly struggled with the shock and public humiliation of the trial.

She left the District after her husband's conviction, and the couple divorced in 1993. She taught health and sex education at Hampton University for 12 years and returned to Washington for their son's final year in high school. She supported her former husband in his successful 2004 bid for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat, to the surprise of the public and political insiders.

Barry worked as a consultant for a local nonprofit group focused on children in poverty before becoming a program director for the D.C. Department of Health's HIV/AIDS Administration.

In February 2006, she went to the Howard University Hospital emergency room thinking she was suffering from a sinus infection. After acute myeloid leukemia was diagnosed, she went into remission for a year, then had a relapse this spring.

"My idea was to bring awareness to a very serious health issue. I am not here for pity," she told The Washington Post in May. "Whenever you face adversity, you use it as an opportunity. I see this as an opportunity because, had it not been for the kindness of the people of the District, I would not still be alive today."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a statement, "It was characteristic of Effi, who was a dedicated educator, to use her battle against leukemia to encourage African Americans to donate urgently needed bone marrow and join the registry for bone marrow transplants, needed for life-threatening diseases like leukemia."

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) called Barry "a truly great woman who devoted her life to public service for this city, and who was beloved by its people. She will be remembered for her work on public health issues for our residents and as an incredible example of poise and grace."

He ordered D.C. flags to be flown at half-staff through her funeral day.

Marion Barry said in an interview yesterday, "In my darkest hour, she was my brightest light."

She was born Effi Slaughter to a single mother in Toledo. She grew up in a sheltered middle-class home and received a degree in home economics from what was then Hampton Institute in the Tidewater area of Virginia. After college, she moved to New York City and married her childhood sweetheart, Stanley Cowell, an accomplished jazz pianist. She worked as a flight attendant, a credit reporter and a junior high school teacher, and received a master's degree in public health from City College of New York. After the marriage ended in divorce, she moved to Washington.

She was a city restaurant inspector when she met Marion Barry in 1976 at a U.S. bicentennial celebration in a park in Southwest. She didn't know who he was -- the charismatic leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a former school board member and a D.C. Council member. Although he was married -- to his second wife, Mary Treadwell -- she gave him her number and he called her the next day.

They married in 1978, while Marion Barry was running for mayor. She had been apolitical until the campaign, and she said she was unprepared for the positives and negatives of being married to the mayor of the nation's capital.

"It was a wonderful education being exposed to all these different cultures," she told The Post in 2004. "I had a life where I might be at the White House in the morning and serving soup to the homeless in the afternoon; there was that diversity of experience. I so much admired Anwar Sadat, and that was a highlight, entertaining his wife in my house, in my house! As a result of Marion, all this was possible."

With the opportunity came scrutiny. An attractive, well-dressed woman who believed in keeping her own life private, she struggled with the expectation of a generations-old black establishment that had paid high dues during the long years of segregation. Her light skin prompted gossip about her racial identity, and her reserved demeanor affronted some people used to her husband's gregariousness.

She drew more serious criticism for taking a birthday gift of $1,150 in clothing from a lobbyist who met repeatedly with the mayor. The couple got a discounted home loan from a bank on whose board she sat, and after that became public, the bank rescinded the preferred rate and she quit the board. She took a job with a public relations firm with a city contract but quit amid questions of conflict of interest.

Barry became involved in the arts, serving on the board of the Corcoran Gallery and opening up the mayor's office as a gallery for local artists. As a health educator, she worked on issues affecting HIV and AIDS patients in the city.

As the years passed, she and her husband began living separate lives. She said later that she knew about his drinking and philandering -- partly because women would tell her that they were with her husband -- but not his drug use.

When she got the late-night call that her husband had been caught in an FBI sting, she was stunned.

"It felt as though someone had just snatched the foundation of the world from underneath my feet and I was just free-falling," she told The Post in a series of interviews this spring. "I didn't know what to do. I ran into the room and I looked at my son. He was still sleeping soundly. I just stood there and cried." She began to pray, she said.

The FBI videotape was played over and over on national and international news. Late-night comedians turned the D.C. mayor into a laughingstock.

"It is one thing to be able to go through a personal tragedy quietly, but . . . to have the whole world focused on this personal tragedy and trauma, to have people making comments and to have people making jokes and making fun of the situation was very painful," she told The Post. "I was hurt. During one of the darkest times of your life, people are laughing."

She described the trial as almost a relief, a protected space where she listened to stories she said she had not heard before. Next to her was her then-best friend, Cora Masters, who later became Marion Barry's fourth wife and a first lady herself when he won reelection after his release from jail.

Despite the divorce and public humiliation, she stood by her ex-husband to the end.

"Why should I change my name?" she asked. "Effi Barry, I am not ashamed to be Effi Barry. I am very proud to have been associated with Marion Barry, one of America's great politicians."

In her final months, Barry began researching genealogy and especially her white father. She believed he was named John Aron and lived in Pontotoc, Miss., but she never found him or a photo of him.

"I want to be able to find out about the other side of me that is still a mystery," she said. "Growing up, there were always whispers, and I knew I was different than the rest of the family. . . . Now my project is to be able to understand from whence I come, to bring closure."

Survivors include her son, Christopher Barry, and her mother, Polly Harris, both of Washington.

Staff writers Joe Holley and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company