Tykisha Bell was elated when she won a first-place prize in Mayor Barry’s 1995 Inaugural Contest. Bell’s poster—which suggested an agenda for the incoming mayor— won her more than accolades: First prize was good for $500. But when the 15-year-old went to collect her reward, she received an unframed certificate and a shrug of the shoulders about the prize money.
First, Bell asked her teachers about what had happened to the cash prize. Then she went downtown to ask in person. Finally, she penned a letter to Barry about the promised reward.
The response from the mayor’s office offered no money but included a tidy philosophical tutorial from Barry staffer Rodney Palmer: “Please be assured that you in fact did receive something for your effort—the recognition of the Mayor of the District of Columbia and the importance of knowing that your work was judged the very best of all the submissions.”
Gee, thanks—that and $25 will pay your next parking ticket.
Last month, Bell and fellow contest-winner John Morrison took the city to small-claims court to collect on a broken promise. In the 20 months since submitting their contest entries in December 1994, Bell and Morrison, both entering their junior year at Coolidge Senior High, got an abject lesson in District governance: promise-breaking, buck-passing, stonewalling, butt-covering, and bullshitting. Had Bell had the benefit of that experience, she might have taken a different approach to the contest, which sought entries under the theme “What I Would Like the Mayor to Do for the City.”
“You would want our young people to respect adults,” said Diane Sommerfield, the District resident who helped Bell and Morrison take their beef to court. “You would want young people to be involved in community, government, to believe in adults. I’m trying to figure out how [it got] screwed up so badly.”
It began nicely enough. The inaugural celebration’s organizing committee, marshalled by then–first lady–elect Cora Masters Barry, decided to throw a Student’s Inaugural Ball and hold the ill-fated contest as a tie-in. Mrs. Barry enlisted then–Board of Education President Linda Moody to co-chair a subcommittee to get the ball rolling. District schoolkids jumped right in, partly because the contest offered 22 U.S. savings bonds ranging from $50 to $500.
“We had timed it so the students had about two weeks to submit their entries before the Christmas break,” said Moody. “It was tight, but the students came through.”
Sometime in that two-week period, however, the inaugural committee experienced a change of heart and decided to call off the student activities. “It became too cumbersome, so we decided not to do it,” Cora Barry now recalls.
Moody and her subcommittee were suddenly without a budget. They called off the ball, but couldn’t put the brakes on the contest. The subcommittee let the contest proceed and hoped to raise cash for the awards later.
“We were thinking of the disappointment of the children who were not going to get the prize money they had been promised,” said Moody.
January came, a panel of distinguished judges judged, and soon there were posters, essays, and science projects tagged with first, second, and third-place honors. After a month or two had passed, however, it became evident the subcommittee would not be raising the dough.
“It wasn’t originally what we were supposed to do,” Moody said. “But, yeah, we sort of dropped the ball.”
Moody said she tried to get Barry’s office interested in fixing the mess but got a stiff arm. She threw in the towel with a March 28, 1995, letter congratulating the winners but telling them that there was still no prize money. “To date we have not been able to resolve that issue,” she wrote.
Morrison, then a 14-year-old freshman, was stunned that he won, and even more stunned that a promise from his city was good for nothing.
“I wrote about opening different programs, building houses and apartments and stuff,” he said. “I gave a lot of ideas. When I won, I said, ‘Alright, I won the essay contest. I get some money.’”
Instead, his Coolidge teacher, Geraldine Slaughter, told him that the money was not forthcoming, although his essay and the other winning entries would be displayed at the Wilson Community Arts Center.
Bell let it slide for a time but got mad again after seeing that the city was having no trouble making good on some of its other commitments.
“I didn’t start thinking about it until this year. They said they didn’t have any money, but then I see on TV Marion Barry was giving out money to all these kids and all these programs. I said, ‘Hey, what about my prize?’”
That’s when she penned her March 26, 1996, letter to “Mayor Barry or To whom that may concern”—which did not turn out to be one and the same. She covered all the important points: how she had entered a contest that went by the name of “Mayor Barry’s 1995 Student Inaugural Contest”; how she had won first prize in the poster category; how she had gotten stiffed on the prize money. She tossed in observations about how it was “unprofessional” and “false advertising” to offer awards without having the funds. It was a fine piece of expository writing.
“I was just hoping to get my money,” she said. “I thought that would do it.”
Palmer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Evaluation, got around to responding two months later. In addition to his platitudinous kiss-off, he said he was “unsuccessful in tracking down who it was that sponsored the inaugural contest.”
Former Coolidge student Sommerfield, who met Bell and Morrison working on a project at her alma mater, just about lost it when she saw the letter. “I thought, ‘How can they lie to these children like this?’” she said.
“I called first over to the mayor’s office to find out who was responsible,” she said. “I must have talked to 13 people in all different levels. I heard it all, from ‘I don’t know’ to ‘Who are you and why do you care?’”
After getting nowhere with the mayor’s office, Sommerfield advised Bell and Morrison to file a small-claims action. After being told by a clerk they could not sue Marion Barry directly, they decided to sue the District government instead. That triggered a July 15 hearing at which the D.C. Corporation Counsel asked for a dismissal on the grounds that the mayor’s inaugural committee—and its old debts—had nothing to do with the District government.
The hearing was enough to catch the attention of Barry’s inner circle: Sommerfield received a call 10 days later informing her that Bell and Morrison would be receiving some checks in the mail…courtesy—albeit indirectly—of Cora Masters Barry.
The checks, indeed, were written on the account of the Wish List Committee of the Washington, D.C. Area, a charity that Mrs. Barry founded last year and that has donated a million dollars’ worth of equipment and services to revamp the District’s youth recreational programs.
Cora Barry said the payment did not signal fault on behalf of her or the inauguration committee. “You know it’s kids, and they don’t understand,” she said. “They didn’t understand when we said we weren’t involved. But you don’t mess with kids, you understand?”
The Wish List Committee, as it happens, got its first funds from the cash left over from Marion Barry’s inauguration fund—the same one that did not have the money to pay Bell and Morrison in the first place.—Tom Stabile