The legendary reserve broke only once. Following slowly after a procession of West African dancers, Effi Barry walked into a tribute in her honor with tears streaming down her face.
It was an emotional moment for both the mayor's wife and the hundreds of women who turned out yesterday afternoon at the University of the District of Columbia's Carnegie Library to show their support and affection for her. Wiping away tears, she was stopped repeatedly as friends reached out for a kiss or hug as she moved up the aisle.
"People have said, 'She's such a strong woman. How can she do that?' " Effi Barry told the crowd. "I draw my energies from all black women who have gone before me. I am no different from you. The only thing is that my family's personal suffering has been made into a media circus for the whole world to see."
Calling the tea "perhaps the last time that I will have an opportunity to stand before you as the First Lady of the nation's capital," Effi Barry used the occasion to say thank you.
"Over the past few weeks and months I have been bolstered and felt such an outpouring of love from you. You have given me encouragement. You have said prayers for my family. You have helped me take each step step-by-step because I knew I was not taking those steps alone."
Mayor Marion Barry, who slipped in after the tea began, received a huge ovation but did not address the audience, saying the focus of the afternoon belonged to his wife.
"This is an appreciation for Effi Barry," he told a reporter, although he then went on to assert, "It represents a merger of a community that supports me. But this is more of a spiritual tribute to Effi. She's been an outstanding wife and a strong person who has helped me endure."
The idea for a tea in her honor came from radio station WOL owner Cathy Hughes, who served as the hostess for the afternoon. Wearing an elaborate, courtly-looking costume complete with sweeping skirt, coral rosettes and lacy headpiece, Hughes described herself as the "first lady-in-waiting to the First Lady of the District of Columbia" and curtsied to both Effi and Marion Barry as they sat on a platform in the front of the room.
Proceeds from the $25 tickets were intended as a gift for Effi Barry's personal use. Organizers of the event would not disclose how many tickets had been sold, but the room appeared to hold at least 500 people when the tea began in the lobby of the downtown library, the announced future home of the controversial artwork "The Dinner Party" by Judy Chicago.
Members of the KanKouran West African Dance Company opened yesterday's program, which also included performances by singer Willie Jolley and the debut of the D.C. Boys' Choir. Mayoral candidate John Ray stopped by.
But the sustained focus of attention was the slender woman in the black and gold dinner suit, who listened to each word of encouragement from those who stood in line waiting for a moment with her. Every person at the tribute signed a guest book and received a small color picture of the District's First Lady inscribed, "With deepest gratitude for your love and support, Effi Barry."
Most of those attending were black women, ranging from the very young to the very old. They shared a fierce devotion to the mayor's wife and her family.
"We're here because we love her for the work they have done," said 83-year-old Emma Saunders. "It's about the love we have for the mayor and his family," chimed in her friend, Janie J. Carroll. "We are together."
"We are here to celebrate that we are one big happy family," said Betty Stradford. "There are problems in all families. With what is going on in the city, we want them to know we are part of the family and we are supporting them."
Nina Gaskin said she came because Effi Barry taught her patience in life.
"I've always admired her. I like a well-poised lady and she's got it. She's like a queen."
Many of the women said they knew the mayor's wife personally. Others at the tea said they had never met her but wanted to be there anyway.
"I'm here to show my support and the support of most young Afro-American women who feel a special understanding of Effi Barry," said Beth Henson, 23. "I understand that she doesn't feel it's necessary to explain herself and the actions of her husband and their relationship to the white media -- to the media in general. What he does and how he acts -- he's accountable. What she does -- she's accountable. And the relationship is their business."
Effi Barry never mentioned the trial or talked about the future. But as she looked over the faces turned up at her, she told them about a lesson she learned a long time ago.
"I was thinking about something my mother would always tell me when I was growing up," she said. "You see, my mother was a teenage parent. There were many times when both adults and children would try to make me feel very, very bad about the circumstances of my birth. But she would always say, 'Don't worry. Don't listen to what people say, because you are God's special angel.'
"And so to the young people here today: Don't worry. Don't let anyone say anything about you to make you feel bad, because all of you are God's special angels."