Mayor Marion Barry’s Headstone

After dominating his city’s political life for most of four decades, former D.C. Mayor Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr. passed away on November 23, 2014 at the age of 78.  But for the first couple of years after his passing, there was no public memorial or monument, or even a private headstone at his gravesite in Historic Congressional Cemetery.  On this lunchtime bike ride I rode to the cemetery to see the headstone that was finally installed at his gravesite.

The headstone was designed by Cora Masters Barry, Barry’s wife, and his late son, Christopher Barry, who subsequently died of a drug overdose without seeing the monument completed.  It was created by Andy Del Gallo, who has worked on a number of notable projects, perhaps most prominent of which was chiseling “‘I have a dream,’ words spoken by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.”, into the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the spot where king stood when he delivered the famous speech.  But when it came to creating a suitable grave marker for the “Mayor for Life” of  D.C., the artistic process took some twists and turns.

A spokeswoman for Barry’s family, Raymone Bain, said the process of marking Barry’s grave took longer than expected in part because the original design had to be scrapped for not conforming to the cemetery’s requirements. His son Christopher’s death was another setback.  But finally, one day short of the two year anniversary of his death, a memorial headstone was installed.

The headstone Barry’s gravesite is located amid rows of headstones and obelisks, many of them inscribed with the names of people who lived and died in the 19th century.  Barry’s grave is located in an adjoining section on the same row of the graves as Leonard Matlovich and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The black stone memorial includes an image of bronze relief of Barry with the words “Mayor for life, beloved forever.”  It also is inscribed with a Bible verse, found at Mark 9:35, which reads, “If any man desires to be first, the same shall be last of all and servant of all.”  It is also inscribed with a statement about Barry by Maya Angelou, which reads, “Marion Barry changed America with his unmitigated gall to stand up in the ashes of where he had fallen and come back to win.”  Lastly, another inscription on the headstone, a quote by Barry himself, reads, “Most people don’t know me … the don’t know about all of the fighting I’ve done to manage a government that was progressive and more oriented to uplift the people rather than suppress them.  That’s what I want my legacy to be.  I was a freedom fighter, and a fighter for the economic livelihood of not only black people but all people.”

And that is indeed part of his legacy.  But it is not his complete legacy, because that is a complex amalgam of good and bad, of success and failure, of a public life and a private life that cannot be easily summed up.  The Washington Post, in an article published shortly after Barry’s headstone was unveiled, described his legacy as “civil rights activism and drug use, job creation and womanizing, part history lesson and part punchline — that defies simple labels.”

The creation of a private monument for Barry underscores how little the city has done to formally memorialize its most famous public figure. City officials have said they have plans for a statue of Barry, although it is not yet clear where it will be placed or when it will be created.  So aside from naming the city’s summer jobs program after Barry, who started it, it has yet to bestow Barry’s name on a school or other significant public structure, and there is still no public memorial or monument to the “Mayor for Life”.  And with the city’s changing demographics, deciding on an apt gesture toward Barry’s four terms as mayor – as well as his additional service as a council member and school board member, and his 1960s civil rights activism – grows more complicated and less likely as time goes on.

         

         
The two photos below show how Mayor Barry’s unmarked grave looked almost two years after his death.
MarionBarry02     MarionBarry03
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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