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Mattie Cummings, 92

Mattie Cummings, 92; mother of D.C. Council's Marion Barry

Mattie Cummings hugs her son Marion Barry in August 1990. He was forced to leave the mayor's office the next year.
Mattie Cummings hugs her son Marion Barry in August 1990. He was forced to leave the mayor's office the next year. (Carol Guzy/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mattie Cummings, 92, a onetime Mississippi sharecropper who was the mother of D.C. Council member Marion Barry, died Nov. 8 at a nursing home in Memphis, where she had spent much of her life as a domestic worker.

Barry (D-Ward 8), who served four terms as mayor of the District, confirmed the death but said he did not know the cause.

She was an advocate of her son's rise from political activist to politician, and she supported him in his bleakest hours. He was forced to leave the mayor's office in 1991 after being convicted of drug possession, and he served six months in prison. She was also by his side when he was reelected mayor in 1994.

In an interview, Barry said he admired his mother's sense of dignity. It was a trait most vividly displayed, he said, when interviewing as a domestic worker for white families. She always insisted that she be called by her surname -- not a common practice between white employers and their black employees in a racially segregated city.

Moreover, he recalled: "She'd be interviewed by some white couple, and she'd say, 'I'm not going to go through any back door. If I'm good enough to come to your house and take care of your snotty-nosed kids, I'm good enough to come through your front door.' "

Mattie Carr was born May 10, 1917, near Minter City, Miss., to sharecroppers. Her parents were unmarried, and she took her mother's last name, not her father's, which was Bailey. With her mother, grandmother and other assorted relatives, she grew up on plantations around the state and began picking cotton by the time she was 9.

"You didn't look back and complain, and you didn't think of doing anything else because no one knew anything else," she later told an interviewer.

Just shy of her 17th birthday, she married Marion Barry Sr., a strapping sharecropper about 25 years her senior, and they had three children, including Marion. The marriage grew troubled over money and her ambition to escape a backbreaking life of chopping cotton for low wages.

She left her husband and made her way to Memphis, where employment possibilities were better because men were away serving in World War II. She found work in a slaughterhouse, where her job on the packing house floor was to cover cattle and hog carcasses with a cloth to absorb the blood. She married a widower, Prince Jones, with whom she had two daughters, and later married Dave Cummings.

She lived with her rapidly expanding family, which included several stepchildren, in a "shotgun-style" house resembling a train car. She later said of their circumstances: "We weren't poor. It was just so many mouths. We always had plenty to eat, clothes, a decent place to live."

In addition to Barry, survivors include a daughter from her marriage to Jones, Gloria Driver of Memphis; 28 grandchildren; 45 great-grandchildren; 24 great-great-grandchildren; and 13 great-great-great-grandchildren.

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