They were seven young Negro men working their way up the ladder of success in the narrow "Blacks-Get-Back" world of this city's proverty-plagued southside ghetto. The civil rights movement had just been born.
They were scholarly and ambitious. Several had gone to Booker T. Washington Hogh School, where the principal was Blair T. Hunt, described as " an erudite, scholarly black man and preacher who took pride in being a straight-A student."
Hunt had a model that the young men believed: "We're tops. We lead. Others follow." He also stresed discipline, sometimes enforcing that discipline with a rap on the head with the big brass school bell that Hunt carried with him on his regular rounds through the school's halls.
These young men -- Kenneth O. Cole, William (Squash) Campbell, George W. Cox, William J. Hawkins, Carl Johnson, William Cross and Marion (Shep) Bary -- also were mischievous. They were self-styled gentleman, and, they insist, "womanizers" each and every one.
They carried their books in briefcases, they smoked pipes, wore wide-legged trousered suits, and drank Schenley's whiskey instead of two-bit wine. They gave their parties on Porter Street near the campus of little LeMoyne College, dancing the 'slow drag' and the 'nikey-hokey.'
And it was Barry, the poorest of these mostly poor boys, who would sometimes pull out a book in the middle of those parties and start studying one of his lessons.
It was Barry, so aggressive that he seldom waited for an introduction to any young lady who caught his fancy, who was suddenly and unexpectedly catapulted into notoriety one day in 1957 when he urged a former Memphis mayor and one-time congressman -- and an "upstanding" white man -- to resign from LeMoyne's board.
It was Barry who reneged on a plan to hitchhike across country upon graduation and instead went on to graduate school, civil rights militancy and a career in politics that has now made him mayor-elect of the District of Columbia.
"No one has been able to figure out what happende," Hawkins said the other night at a welcome-home fete given for Barry. For awhile, Marion was just what I consider to be a biade of grass, and then somehow overnight he sprang up like a California redwood tree."
"Shep," said Cox, "always saw himself in a change agent role. He saw he was in a position where he could effect even more change for a greater number of persons at a much higher level."
To most residents of Washington, the world of the District's next chief executive seems to begin in the District a few years back with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The rest is usually neatly summarized as birth in Itta Bena, Miss., growing up in Memphis and a brief stint in the Southern civil rights movement.
Interviews with some of Barry's closest friends and former classmates, and his mother, Mattie Cummings, reveal, however, that Barry's beginnings are far more complex. They are deeply rooted in the small society that was black Memphis a quarter of a century ago.
When Barry was growing up in this sprawling mid-South city on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, cotton and lumber were king and black labor was cheap, recalls Carl Johnson, who is now a member of the Memphis school board.
All of the top jobs in town were held by whites. Blacks were given one day a week to go to the "public" zoo and their own fair. Access to "publicc parks, hospitals and libraries was strictly segregated.
"Many people resigned themselves to working and living in an all-black society," recalls Kenneth O, Cole,the soft-and precise speaking director of operations at Barry's alma mater, from which he also graduated.
The way out was to go to college, and for most blacks here that meant LeMoyne, a small school founded in 1862 by the American Missionary Society that merged with another institution in 1968 to become LeMoyne-Owen College.
"It was a rock in the weary land and a shelter in the time of storm," Barry told a group of students at the school last week. "We ought to thank God for LeMoyne-Owen."
At a time when some still publicly raised doubts about the intelligence of blacks, it was not only prestigious to go to college but even more prestigious to major in some field of science. Barry was a chemistry major.
"The feeling was that our parents didn't get an education and it was an insult to your parents if you dropped out of school," Johnson said. "That was the way out. That was the poor man's avenue to success.
"You had to go all the way, to the professor level or nothing. Otherwise you would go to the post office or work on the railroads."
Competition was intense and money often was scarce. When Barry finished high school with a partial scholarship to Le Moyne, he hustled odd jobs to make ends meet. His mother says that at one point she noticed him losing weight and found out that her son sometimes did not have enough money to eat. He did not want to impose further burdens on the family by asking for her help, she says.
It was in 1957 that Barry became a civil rights symbol here. President of the LeMoyne chapter of the NAACP, Barry was angered when Walter Chandler, a former mayor, ex-congressman, lawyer and then member of LeMoyne's board, accused the Memphis NAACP of not acting "in good faith" by suing the city in an efort to desegregate Memphis buses.
Even though Chandler had made the statement in his capacity as lawyer for the bus company, Barry felt such remarks were improper for a member of the LeMoyne board. He signed and sent a letter to that effect to a school newspaper, "The Magician," that was later reprinted in the daily press.
No demonstrations followed. Chandler did not resign and disgruntled administrators were unable to force Barry out of school. Shortly afterward Barry was quoted in The Memphis Press-Scimitar as saying the whole affair had surprised him.
"I didn't want to embarrass the college. It was not my idea to publish the letter," he said. "I didn't think it would be made public and get into the daily papers. I am sorry it did. I regret the way it came out." Barry insisted to his friends, nevertheless, that he was convinced his actions were justified.
The following year, Barry and Cole had planned to hitchhike across the country. But, Cole recalls, Barry changed his mind and decided to go to graduate school at Fisk University in Nashville. Barry received a master's degree in chemistry from Fisk and for three years worked on a doctorate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Despite several suggestions from his mother that he come back to Memphis and get a job as a teacher -- as many of his old friends had done -- Barry never returned home to live.
When about 400 people showed up to honor Barry at LeMoyne Saturday night, the Marion Barry they saw was a somewhat different man as well as a busy delegate to the Democatic midterm conference.
He was unable to stop by the wood-panel-walled Kappa House where his high school class was giving a $1-ahead fundraiser in preparation for its 25-year reunion. Nor was he able to visit the Petroleum Club, a private lounge atop one of the city's highest buildings. There "Squash Campbell and the Others" -- a sextet that includes saxophonists Campbell and Hawkins, vocalist Cross and pianist Cole -- were rendering vintage 1950s versions of "You're So Fine." and "Blueberry Hill" plus a doo-whop arrangement of "Don't Be Cruel" with a cha-cha beat.
But black Memphis said it was proud of Mattie Cummings' only son. "Who would have know 20 years ago," former Shelby County Criminal Court Judge W. Otis Higgs told the gathering, "that when a former mayor spoke here the very man he insulted would become the mayor of the nation's capital?"