Cora Masters Barry didn’t want to say anything that might come across as boasting about her role in taking over a trash-strewn, bloodstained vacant lot in the poorest part of the District and turning it into a multimillion-dollar island of love and learning for children.
So, as she prepared for the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center’s 10th anniversary gala Thursday, which will feature tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, I had to find others who would boast about her.
“Like myself, the Williams sisters and Dr. Dorothy Height (the late founder of the National Council of Negro Women), each person who chooses to be involved with Cora’s work is amazed by her sense of responsibility — it is huge,” Maya Angelou, poet extraordinaire, told me during a telephone chat from her home in North Carolina. “She means to change things for the better, and I don’t know of a better way to use my energies than to support someone who does that.”
When then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was trying to take the center away from Barry in 2009, saying that the city lease had run out, a nationwide coalition of women — Angelou, Height and several members of Congress among them — came to her defense. Once Fenty decided not to pursue the eviction, Barry got back to work.
Among the many activities at the center is a girl’s step team, the Bells, which performed at the National Council of Negro Women’s “Uncommon Heights” gala honoring Oprah Winfrey. The TV star was moved to tears.
There’s also a “Blacks in Wax” history program where youngsters take on the roles of famous African Americans and bring them to life; more than a dozen cast members were featured in a special performance at the Kennedy Center last month.
“This is about Cora seeing a need and focusing on it with great passion,” said Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., and Barry’s best friend.
Barry grew up in Pasadena, Calif., the daughter of Alfred Masters — the first African American sworn into the U.S. Marine Corps, in June 1942 — and Isabell Masters, who earned a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma when she was 67 and ran for president of the United States four times as a write-in Republican.
That might explain Barry’s take-charge attitude.
Back in the mid-’90s, before she had mellowed somewhat, Cora Barry famously lashed out at the city’s chief financial officer, Anthony Williams, over proposed budget cuts. The name she derisively yelled at him, “Bow Tie,” stuck even as Williams went on to become a two-term bow-tie-wearing mayor.
You’d think the two would have never spoken to one another after that episode. And yet, at Thursday’s gala, to be held inside the tennis center at 701 Mississippi Ave. SE, Anthony Williams will be honored as the center’s “champion partner of the decade.”
That’s Cora Barry: A hot temper leads to a warm embrace.
Barry had been a professor of political science at the University of the District of Columbia. She resigned her post after helping engineer the reelection of her estranged husband, Marion Barry, to a third term as mayor following his release from prison on a drug charge.
Cora and Marion, who is now a D.C. Council member, have been amicably separated for several years.
In 1995, she used $200,000 left over from his inaugural to organize the Recreation Wish List Committee, which set out refurbishing recreation centers throughout the city.
That’s how it all began.
She got acclaimed architect Leo Daly to design the center pro bono and won the support of John Tydings, then-chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, during a luncheon with board members that she had catered with soul food from Georgia Brown’s.
No doubt it was the first time collard greens had ever been served at the Board of Trade.
The payoff has been spectacular. The tennis instructions alone have resulted in hundreds of students getting college tennis scholarships.
Bill McSweeny, former president of Occidental Petroleum and current visionary fellow at MIT, called Barry a “bridge builder.”
“Cora has this great vision for doing something for the kids in Southeast, and she just won’t accept no for an answer,” said McSweeny, a D.C. resident who has given her financial and moral support from the start. “She brought in so many people from all over the city and made everyone believe that this was going to happen.”
“To God be the glory” was about all Cora Barry would say about her accomplishments. Still, one might give thanks to the person through whom her God had done some pretty amazing work.