Cora Masters Barry, D.C. Strike Deal on Recreation Center

Education shares top billing with tennis at the Southeast facility.
Education shares top billing with tennis at the Southeast facility. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

Former first lady Cora Masters Barry will remain at the recreation center she was instrumental in building a decade ago after a rally from nationally known friends, including congresswomen and women's rights icon Dorothy Height, who appeared Thursday at a D.C. Council hearing on Barry's behalf.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his administration announced hours before the hearing that the city will not follow through with plans to evict the Recreation Wish List Committee from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center over a technicality about the group's corporate status.

The group was given notice to vacate in August. Politically and legally, the efforts to evict Barry were embarrassing for the Fenty administration.

In September, D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith N. Macaluso issued a temporary restraining order blocking the action. Council members, parents and youths voiced concerns after Fenty twice canceled meetings with Height and poet Maya Angelou, who wished to speak with him on Barry's behalf. Fenty cited scheduling problems.

At the council hearing, council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and several other council members apologized to Height, who attended, seated in her wheelchair and wearing one of her trademark hats -- this one in purple. Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) also appeared at the hearing, adding to the heavy hitters who found the vacate notice outrageous and backed Barry. Tennis great Zina Garrison, who was on the nonprofit group's board, testified that she was "speechless" when she learned of the situation.

In an interview, Barry, estranged wife of council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), said she was happy to get back to work after the distraction. Her group is well respected for its work at the recreation center, offering students such after-school programs as tennis lessons; book, sewing and chess clubs; and SAT/PSAT preparation.

Although no one in the Fenty administration offered an explanation for the vacate order other than the technical lapse in corporate status, which was a term of the group's lease agreement, city officials said privately that Barry's nonprofit could be serving more children at the center. There was also an interest in a stronger tennis program.

Barry said she has seen enrollment drop since the controversy began, because parents were confused about whether the committee would remain at the recreation center. "We had 50 to 60 kids weekly. I've seen that decrease," she said. "We have to work to build back up.

"Once we get steady, we can expand services and develop a model for other centers," she added.

Fundraising was also put on a backburner to deal with the threat, and those efforts will also get back on track, she said.

Barry said any new programs created by the parks department would be welcome. "We will work in partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation. Whatever they do, we will work with them," Barry said. "We never had a problem with them."

City officials issued this statement: "All parties involved are satisfied with today's settlement agreement, and look forward to working together to ensure that District residents and children receive high quality public recreation services."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company