My Memories of Marion Barry

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

I've been dealing with Marion Barry's passing since the day the news flashed on my computer in big glaring letters:  "Marion Barry former DC Mayor, Dead at 78"  - I heard myself say, "Marion?  Oh no!!"

Marion Barry, DC Mayor for Life

It's kind of hard to think of Marion no longer being on this side of earth; of his having passed on - some people have, to my mind, a kind of immortality.  That, to me, was Marion - nothing phased him.  He was built for challenge and triumph.  Life threw a lot of challenges at him, but he gave as good as he got.

I remember first meeting Marion in 1985 - it was the first year I covered the Congressional Black Caucus.  It was a brief meeting - I introduced myself to him because he had been married to my former Hampton Institute (it was "Institute" before it became university) classmate Effie Slaughter. 

In addition to Marion being the mayor of Washington, DC, he had been a hero and legend to us as the former Black Power leader with SNCC - his leadership and bravery were legendary.  Not to mention the fact that he was a Fine Black Man - most of us couldn't believe that he and Effie were married, because Effie, at the time we knew her, was extremely bourgeois (in a good way, folks) and reserved, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the Movement.   I had many a debate at Hampton with Effie Black in the day about Civil Rights.  Black Power hadn't even been enunciated at the time.  It was enough that she didn't support sit ins, marches and demonstrations at the time that we were student activists.  When I heard from former classmates that she had married Marion, it was an absolute shock!


So, I definitely wanted to meet the brother who turned Effie Slaughter around, got her to wearing her hair in the natural style, and becoming an exponent for Black womanhood. He would always brag, "I pulled Effi!" (she dropped the final "e" on her name after they were married).  "I couldn't let that beautiful woman out of my life."  He always spoke of her with love and respect.  And he absolutely adored and was very proud of their son, Chris. 

He was always positive, powerful, outgoing, and totally aware everything around him - even though he could be totally focused on you and what you were saying.  By the time I met Marion in 1985, he had been mayor for six years and already begun to have a major impact on the neglected neighborhoods in DC - building business centers, expanding educational programs.  It was Marion who made it possible for Black merchants to be a part of the lucrative Congressional Black Caucus's yearly event that spread millions every year during their week-long Annual Legislative Caucus Weekend.  According to Marion it made no sense for thousands of Black businesses and elected officials to come to DC, spend millions of dollars, and the Black community not benefit from it.

It was because of Marion that the Caucus held at least one breakfast reception  and a forum at Howard University - something, by the way,  that has not been done by any of the mayors elected since his terms in office.   Marion's vision for DC was one where Black business would thrive and grow - and he had begun making inroads into various communities that were strongholds of poverty - constructing business centers and venues that would either hire or be headed by local Black residents.

This didn't set too well with some of the political figures - and they targeted Effi on many occasions as a way to slow Marion down.  Not having any training in the realm of political sharkdom, Effi was often put through the ringer for the smallest of issues.  She didn't have the thick skin Marion had, and it sometime frazzled her.  {It was ironic in a way - when Effi returned to Hampton to teach, it was my son, Rais Wilson's freshman year.  He had her as his teacher.  He had heard so much about Effi and Marion, that made sure she knew he was my son - of course she regaled him with all my misadventures at Hampton.}

Marion always managed to be anywhere there was any kind of Black forum going on - I would run into him in New York on  a regular basis, where he would either come to speak or just be there as a participant.  His support of other Black leaders, such as Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, was widely known.  There were many DC political figures who were leary of his Black Power background, and wanted him to be a more conventional mayor.  And there were those who resented the fact that he would hold up approval of appropriations until they agreed to also put something in the Black community as well.  But he always said that Adam Clayton Powell was one of his heroes - he wanted to have as much of an impact on DC as Powell had in Congress.  He came pretty close.

It was clear that the hostile powers that be were out to get Marion - with that obvious, thinly veiled entrapment plot hatched by the FBI and played out ad infinitum on TV, with them standing behind the door while the female tried on several occasions to entice him into smoking a laced joint - it looked like something out of a Saturday Night Live comedy skit - the whole Black world saw it for what it was - trying to destroy an icon - nothing new or unusual about it - and while the meanstream media had a field day, Black people rallied to Marion's side.  The more they hyped that bare puff on camera, the more angry and determined Black people were to make sure that it would not stand.

I guess the only people surprised that Marion Barry was re-elected Mayor of Washington DC by a wide margin were all the white folks - But no one Black was surprised, upset, or dismayed.  Marion Barry loved Washington, DC.  He loved Black people - he had demonstrated it time and time again.  His love was genuine - and ever expanding.  He was committed to Black people, and used his life to demonstrate his dedication.

In 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela was freed, South Africa sent a delegation of African business men and women to DC to learn how to from Black Americans how to do business.  Marion was happy to receive them, but told them he was somewhat embarrassed because there were still so few Black Americans in successful businesses that would be of any benefit to the development and economic empowerment of South Africa.  He was still trying to make it possible to expand Black business ownership in DC himself.  

After Marion's term as mayor was completed, many conjectured that he might at last retire - after all, he'd done enough, what else was left.  But when he threw his hat in the ring to represent Ward 8, no one was really surprised, except for his detractors.  He generally paid them little mind - or not in a way that most people would notice.    

In or out of office, he was always involved with the people of DC.  I remember when he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer, I asked him why he didn't retire a bit and take it easy for a while.  He actually promised to do so - of course that never happened - ten years later he was still going strong.

The great thing about Marion was that he loved people, was approachable, didn't get "the vapors" because he had been mayor, and didn't resent others who were in office after him - though there were some who definitely tried to side step him.  He proved to be so unstoppable, that many gave up predicting what he would do next.

The last two times I saw Marion was in July 2013, when I was in DC for Delta Sigma Theta's 100th Anniversary Centennial Celebration - he teased me about painting DC Red; and at the 2013 Congressional Black Caucus.  I remember saying, "Marion, I was just looking for you," in a joking manner.  And his face went serious for a moment, as he responded, "For what?"  That's when I realized that the detractors and right wingnuts hadn't let up, but were an ever present negative factor in his life on a daily basis.

My response was, "To give you hug, and let you know I was thinking about you - glad to see you."  He started laughing and said, "You're probably the only person I know who doesn't want something from me."  I laughed and said, "Well, at least not today."  

That was our last conversation.  

It's interesting the little things you remember about a person.  Smiles, crinkles around the eyes, warm hand shakes.  Congenial attitude - 

That was Marion Barry - the People's Mayor.  Hopefully the new mayor will take a bit of what he's done and expand on it.  There's still a lot of unfinished business - but he definitely paved the way.

He will always be loved and always remembered with gratitude, reverence and respect.

Rest In Peace, Brother Mayor Ancestor/Angel Marion Barry.

Stay Blessed & 
Gloria Dulan-Wilson


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