Cora Masters Barry has eclipsed the last name she adopted when she married “mayor for life” Marion Barry in 1993.
“At the beginning, I had to get beyond some of the barriers that came with it,” she says, as in the road blocks erected by many people who viscerally disliked the former mayor and current Ward 8 council member. However, his name also opened a door or two.
In the late 1990s, when Barry began raising money for her tennis and learning center on the District’s downtrodden eastern edge, she asked to meet with Don Graham, then the publisher of the Washington Post. He was, and still is, a generous contributor to local causes, but Graham was not a fan of Marion Barry, who by then had been mayor for four terms and had spent six months in jail on a cocaine rap.
“My last name got me in the door,” Cora Barry says. “I didn’t expect to come away with any money.”
But after she described her goal of creating a program in Anacostia that would combine tennis with teaching for kids struggling in school, Graham forked over the first $50,000 for what is now the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center.
Since the facility opened in 2001, more than 10,000 children have passed through the tennis courts and classrooms that Cora Barry created, in partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation. Next month, she will unveil the renovated and rebuilt facility that could become one of the premier tennis facilities on the East Coast.
“You know the adage—if you build it, they will come,” Barry says during a tour of the new building. She sports a hot pink hard hat studded with gems that one of the construction companies made for her. “Well, we built it.”
Barry doesn’t love to spend time in the unfinished, cavernous, 48,000-square-foot structure that will house six courts and a mezzanine that seats 400. I coax her from her office to snap a few pictures. She tells me “they” are already starting to come. George Washington University will host its home tennis matches in the new facility. Barry is hoping to attract national tournaments.
“Imagine holding a national junior tournament in Southeast Washington,” she says. “That’s amazing.”
Cora Masters didn’t imagine becoming a tennis and learning entrepreneur when she became Marion Barry’s fourth wife before he ran for mayor in 1994. She used $100,000 left over from his inaugural bash to create the Recreation Wish List Committee. She raised funds and used the money to finance small projects east of the Anacostia River. She opened the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, with $3.7 million in city funds, thanks to former mayor Tony Williams and the DC council.
Venus and Serena Williams showed up for the kickoff, along with tennis legends Pam Shriver and Zina Garrison. A year after the opening, Barry separated from her husband after the US Park Police found traces of marijuana and cocaine in his car at Buzzard Point, on the west bank of the Anacostia.
Tony Williams was a fan of the tennis center and used to hit balls there a couple of times a week. That wasn’t the case with former mayor Adrian Fenty, who tried to evict Barry from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center. She had to go to court to fend Fenty off. Mayor Vince Gray became a supporter and appropriated $18 million to finance the reconstruction, and Venus Williams designed the facility through her firm, V Starr Interiors.
“Tennis is the hook,” Barry says. “Education is the key.”
The learning center’s education wing has classrooms, a computer center, and a round room for gatherings and performances. Students come for after-school programs and summer school.
“We recruit these students from nearby schools,” she says. “They all need help performing at grade level. We try to change the trajectory of their lives—change the way they look at themselves.
“They come to us with their heads dropped,” she says. “They are failing at math and reading. When they leave here they are better at both. What gets lost is what these kids have done.”
She is talking about students like Rachel Means, whose tennis training helped her get into Brown University, Candace Cunningham, who nailed a full tennis scholarship to Penn State, and Eric Chavous, who first picked up a racquet at the Southeast tennis center and became a star and a member of the Howard University team.
Cora Barry hopes to tell their stories at the November 7 gala to celebrate the opening of the new facility. She also hopes to raise $1 million to finance an endowment for the center.
“We have to have private donors step up,” she says.
Foundations and individuals have contributed over the years, she says. The Meyer Foundation “has never wavered.” It was started by Don Graham’s grandparents, Eugene and Agnes Meyers. “They didn’t just give us money,” she says. “They taught us how to be successful.”
The tennis center has received regular grants from DC’s Children Youth Investment Trust. “People like Reginald Van Lee, Bill McSweeney, and Mark Ein have been invaluable,” Barry says.
Kevin Akers, 12, has a different take on who’s invaluable. He’s been coming to the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center for three years, playing tennis and studying. He’s also played Barack Obama in the center’s annual “Blacks In Wax” performance.
“Without her,” he says, nodding to Cora Barry, “none of this would be here.”*
*This post has been updated from a previous version.