Washington, D.C has welcomed another Black man on Pennsylvania Avenue this year. He may not be President Obama (oh, how we wish!), but his contributions lead to significant changes on and off Capitol Hill. Marion Barry Jr., best known as D.C.’s “Mayor for Life,” was honored with an 8-foot tall bronze statue. The larger-than-life sculpture is located at the John. A. Wilson Building, where Barry maintained an office, just blocks away from the White House.
A Democrat, Barry represented as an at-large member for Ward 8 on the Council of the District of Columbia for three tenures and was the only D.C. mayor to serve four terms. He was largely known as a civil rights activist, the first chairman of SNCC and a political pioneer for appointing the country’s first major city with a woman as school board superintendent.
“What so many of us adored about Mr. Barry is that he embodied the spirit of Washington. You know that spirit! Where you can fall down and get back up,” shouted current D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser at the statue’s dedication. “Mr. Barry taught us ‘do not ever give up hope because as long as you’re waking up on this Earth, there can be a comeback.’ ”
One could say that comebacks were Barry’s specialty. From an undercover FBI sting and political battles to IRS issues, Barry always managed to land on his feet and retained the respect and love of the city.
Despite Barry’s criminal history and political controversies, Washingtonians adored him. During his first term, he instituted his infamous summer jobs program, in which school-age residents were given summer employment opportunities. His political power won the heart of Chocolate City time after time because of his dedication in diversifying the city and helping create the Black middle class.
“Marion demonstrated courage every day of his life. He was fearless, but also tenacious. Marion was unstoppable. Nothing stood in his way.” said Cora Masters Barry, Barry’s widow. “Marion loved his people. He helped everyone. He did what God requires us to do- to love one another like we love him. Yes, today God is honoring Marion Barry.”
Barry served in office until his death, just four days shy of Thanksgiving in 2014. Plans for the statue began soon after. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser established the Barry Commission to consider how best to honor Barry. In March 2016, a $300K budget for a lifelike sculpture was agreed upon and the search for a sculptor sparked a contest. Artist Steven Weitzman was chosen.
“Who would not want the honor? I have been very fortunate. I had done the bronze sculpture of Frederick Douglass in the United States Capitol that represents Washington, D.C., and to have had that opportunity alone was my life’s work”, says Weitzman. “But, to have now, the occasion to create an 8-foot bronze sculpture of Marion Barry. These are, to me, the two most important bronze sculptures that I’ve ever made. So, it’s a great honor.”
Among several busts and representations of African Americans, Barry is only 1 of 4 African American standing statues in the nation’s capital. Other statues include Josh Gibson, Mary McLeod Bethune and Martin Luther King Jr.