Washington, D.C. was dubbed the “murder capital” of the U.S. in the early ’90s. Violence was at an all-time high and the drug scene was still collapsing neighborhoods. During the decline of D.C. communities, Cora Masters Barry saw the youth suffer most, which led to her creating the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center (SETLC). The SETLC is a tennis facility centered in the heart of Ward 8 in D.C., to provide educational opportunities, cultural enrichment, technology and athletic programs for urban youth. Founded by Barry in 1995, the Recreation Wish List Committee (RWLC) is a nonprofit organization that spearheaded the SETLC. The RWLC made it their mission to find safe spaces for youth to grow and play. By 2001, through a partnership with the RWLC and D.C. Parks and Recreation, SETLC opened its doors.
Barry first built six courts outside at SETLC and quickly realized that the center couldn’t thrive without adding an academic aspect. “I would come and play with the kids and I would watch them. They could play tennis really well but they would give each other the finger, or they settled whoever lost with whopping somebody’s behind on the corner. I realized that we needed to do a little bit more than that. … I think it is criminal to hand a kid from our community, from the inner city, a football in one hand and not give him a book in the other hand,” she said.
SETLC’s academic program, Blacks in Wax, has become a favorite in the community. Annually, about 60 youth from the center participate in an original stage production. They perform monologues depicting the contributions of past and living historical African American figures in period costumes. The tennis scholars stand in a pose behind a rope, giving the effect of a “wax figure” until a spotlight is brightened, signaling their turn to give a live portrayal of the person they are representing. The program was held at the Kennedy Center in 2016.
Of course you can’t talk about tennis without mentioning living legends Serena and Venus Williams. The tennis champs were involved with the process during the early stages and so was American tennis coach and mother of the legendary duo, Oracene Price. Services for the decor were provided by Venus Williams and her interior design firm V Starr Interiors. When asked how the Williams sisters got involved, Barry says that she was approached by Serena and Venus’ sister, Isha Price. “Isha came to me and said ‘Mrs. Barry I want to help you.’ Isha brought Oracene and walked through the building when it was about 80 percent done. Since I just had hip replacement surgery I entertained them from my bed. Oracene said, ‘This is really a great place that you’re building. When do you plan to open it?’ and I said ‘When Venus and Serena are available, not a day before.’ … The center personifies their history. It personifies their beginnings. It personifies the community they came from. It’s the same community. I was ready when they were.”
Barry passionately explains how she wants to provide opportunities to African Americans in underserved impoverished communities. “I have my own civil rights movement within the tennis world. Tennis is a sport that has basically been reserved for rich, privileged White people in the suburbs and in the country clubs. So when you bring it in the element of our people, mostly coming in from the community, like Venus and Serena from Compton, you have to fight through a big power structure. … My vision is to make it for people of color. It’s not restricted. If you are someone else you can come too, but I want people of color to experience it where they live,” Barry said.
The expansion of SETLC is in phase 3, which will include an additional 20 tennis courts, a clubhouse, parking and four indoor courts. Barry believes that the new extension will help benefit her long-term goal of hosting tournaments. “When we add these additional courts, and when we do these things that bring us up to another level, then we can be a national training center. Once we get enough courts we can have international tennis tournaments. We have only three in the United States: Eddie Herr, the Orange Bowl and The Zoo which is located in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I want to add the fourth. I want to have it here. Not only in Washington, D.C. but in Southeast Washington, D.C.,” she said.
Along with many programs at SETLC, Barry will be starting a local program for African American boys modeled after President Obama’s national initiative to empower young Black men in the near future. Her vision for this program comes from a collaboration with her late husband and former Mayor of the District of Columbia, Marion Barry. “I wanted to share that and make that happen through the mayor [Muriel Bowser]. She’s been amazing. She has been the support to promoting, protecting and personifying Marion’s legacy. We have a statue of him that is going to be unveiled in early March. After that we are going to talk about some of the programs, other than the infamous summer jobs program, that reflect his vision for the youth here … it’s still to come,” she said.