Women’s History Month Profile: Cora Masters Barry

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By Saraya Wintersmith

Cora Masters Barry
Cora Masters Barry

Few women in the city are as well known, or highly respected as former District of Columbia first lady Cora Masters Barry. She’s the first woman to head the DC Commission and a renowned political strategist. She’s founder and CEO of the Recreation Wish List Committee (RWLC), and even though she never dreamed of the job, she’s the mastermind behind the east of the river’s beloved Southeast Tennis and Learning Center. As such, Barry heads the organizations efforts to revitalize recreation centers. Her continued leadership and perseverance everyday are making sure that playtime in the District is safe and fun for all.

Barry was born in Oklahoma City, but says she was raised in Pasadena, California, and even though she describes her childhood as a “pretty normal” one, she grew up experiencing what it was like to be steadfast and break barriers. Her mother, Isabell Masters, was referred to as a “blockbuster,” meaning she was typically the first black person to own property in a neighborhood. “My mother was a very dynamic woman. She was way ahead of her time,” Barry explains. “She owned a lot of property, sold a lot of property, taught and traveled all over the country.” Barry says she learned a lot about leadership and follow-through from her single mother. “She never taught us, nor were we ever told about gender role identification, so I never had a gender identification in terms of what I could and couldn’t do.” That freedom from gender stereotypes of the era, along with a role model inspired Barry to consider lots of career options. In the end, it was the call to serve and provide for youth that helped her find fulfillment.

When it came to balancing career goals and family life, Barry says it was not an easy thing to do. She says she owes her success to a system of alternating priorities. “I was able to balance it so that I could give my all where I was needed in various things that were important to me,” she explains. I had 2 or 3 things that took priority. There were times when there was nothing more important on the earth than my kids, and then there were some times where there was nothing more important than my job. I was able to balance it so that I could give my all where I was needed in various things that were important to me.”

Barry served on the DC Boxing Commission for nearly a decade and focused on the amateur programs and the youth. She served on three national committees and helped create an international boxing passport system to address the problems of brain damage and long-term injuries that occurred as boxers changed fighting jurisdictions to avoid bench time. Under the system, boxers began to report their fights and health conditions as they moved through jurisdictions. Barry also helped confront sexism in the sport of boxing. “It was always so silly to me,” she says recalling incidents where men protested her presence in the locker room. “Sometimes, I would be in situations or in critical meetings and I would raise my hand and say something that I thought was pretty good and they wouldn’t acknowledge it. Then, 2 minutes later, somebody else would say the same thing and they would say ‘Oh, that’s great!’ So, I got through all of that to end up being at the top of the sport. It was just something I dealt with as it confronted me. I didn’t sit back and anticipate it. She says her time on the commission groomed her for some of the scenarios she would deal with while building up the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center. “The boxing commission was tough,” she says “but every part in my life prepared me for different things.”

Now, the District belle says her job renovating DC’s recreation centers keeps her young and updated – she even keeps up with the world via Twitter and Instagram. “The reason that I enjoy getting up in the morning is because I know this is another day that I will be able to be a part of affecting, in a very positive way, the lives of our children. That’s immediate gratification. That’s fun.” Barry tells The Capital News she can hardly wait to greet the next phase of life with travel and professional goals.

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