Cora Masters Barry turned 75 in May of 2020, which deprived her of one of the milestone celebrations she so loves. But she’s never one to take “no” for an answer, and Sunday’s “Bustin’ Loose” bash did not celebrate her 76th birthday. It was, officially, her “75 Plus One.”

More important, it was a timely excuse for Washington’s former first lady — who was married to Marion “Mayor for Life” Barry Jr. — and her friends to return to a semblance of normal after 14 months of social distancing. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted many mask recommendations for those who have received coronavirus shots, which dovetailed nicely with Barry’s one but ironclad rule: Everyone at her backyard party had to be fully vaccinated and had to prove it by submitting their vaccination card with their RSVP.

It was one of the first big gatherings of local political elites, and served as an informal signal of how celebrations might play out as the social scene gingerly moves forward.

“I’m so grateful,” she said. “I survived mentally, physically, spiritually. There were a lot of silver linings. This is my opportunity to give everybody a chance to say we’re just glad to be here. We all made it. We’re ready to go on with our lives.”

The 65 guests, ages 26 to 90 years, included D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, council members Robert White and Christina Henderson, Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter, Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks, sculptor Steven Weitzman (who created the Marion Barry statue outside City Hall) and other local dignitaries. They were greeted at the entrance to their hostess’s Southeast home with photos of her over the years; glittered, bejeweled face shields for anyone who wanted to wear one; and copper cups filled with her favorite drink, Moscow mules (renamed Moscow bulls for the night because she’s a Taurus).

And then the hostess herself: green glasses, floral jacket and a hug for everyone because she finally could.

Barry celebrated her actual birthday, May 7, in New Orleans with philanthropist Reginald Van Lee, who was born on May 8. “It was fantastic,” he said. “A second line band came into the restaurant and we marched one mile through the French Quarter.” Masks on? “Only vaccinated people were at the party, but we still wore masks.”

Nine days later, the masks were off and the music was on, cranked high enough to make conversations loud. Spirits were high: Activist Ronald Moten, the force behind Washington’s upcoming go-go museum, wore a custom “Vaccinated and GoGonated” T-shirt he created specifically for the event. Patio lights hung over the black-and-white tables, and guests enjoyed an open bar and a buffet of ribs, fried fish, jerk chicken and sweet potato pie (with waiters serving), then settled in for the real business of the night: a lot of roasts and a few heartfelt toasts.

Mendelson, who nicknamed himself Barry’s “shot buddy” because the two were vaccinated together, kicked things off with a shout-out to all the guests who showed up, calling it “a celebration that we’re getting out of the pandemic.”

Then things got more personal. Since her stint as first lady ended, Barry has remained a stubborn advocate for the District, especially Ward 8 — at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center that she founded, as a member of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and as organizer of the “Don’t Miss Your Shot” vaccination event for more than a thousand Ward 8 residents this spring.

“She has a heart of gold and the tongue of a scorpion,” said lifelong friend Julianne Malveaux. “She always thinks she’s going to make you better and lift you up.”

Said Moten: “One thing I’ll say about Cora Masters Barry: If she’s your friend, she’s your friend. And if she’s not your friend, she’s not your friend. I’m happy to be on the right side of things.”

“You must agree 98 percent of the time,” said her brother, Bishop Thomas Masters, who flew in from Florida to surprise his big sister. The roasts went on in that vein for a while, then the guest of honor took the microphone.

“Isn’t it wonderful to be able to sit out here and laugh and talk and see each other smile?” Barry told the audience. “How many of you feel like you’re bustin’ loose today? We survived and we’re here to tell the story.” There were laughs and thanks and even a few tears.

The party had everything but dancing — the spirit was willing but the flesh was tired. By the time the toasts and speeches ended, it was late and chilly with temperatures in the 50s. The DJ implored people to dance, but most drifted out — probably a good thing, all things considered, given that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s controversial ban on dancing at weddings and other gatherings is still in effect.

So bustin’ loose, metaphorically. It’s a start.


A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misspelled Corey McCathern's name. This version has been corrected.

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