When he was 14, Ward 8 native Byron Coleman got his first job at D.C.’s Arthur Capper Recreation Center through the Summer Youth Employment Program that Marion Barry had started. Twelve years later, the 26-year-old Anacostia resident works at the after-school program at Stanton Elementary School in Skyland and is in the process of becoming an elementary school aide.
He says he has Barry to thank for his now-focused career path. So maybe it’s fitting that Coleman was one of the last people to speak with Barry before the former D.C. mayor and Ward 8 stalwart passed away early Sunday morning. Coleman was leaving Uniontown Bar & Grill around 10:30 p.m. Saturday, when he saw Barry being escorted into the establishment.
Barry sat down on a bar stool, and since there was no one sitting next to him, Coleman plopped down beside him and started chatting. Coleman had met Barry as a teen a couple times, but he says this was the most significant encounter he’d ever had with the former mayor.
“I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was doing fine,” Coleman says. “And that was as personal as we got. Everything else was about me and my endeavors as an educator.”
Coleman says his life wasn’t always on track. His 20-year-old brother was shot and killed in Southeast D.C. in 2006; a few years after that, Coleman says, he decided he wanted to make a difference in the community. He now has two biological children and two stepchildren.
“Just being in such a strong presence, right before that person passes away, I feel that God just made sure that I was there,” he says. “I’m going through a positive transformation in my life, trying to make a positive difference… and to be in the presence of someone who spent their whole life doing that, it’s just real. Words can’t describe it.”
After Coleman relayed his story to Barry Saturday night, the former mayor told him he was proud of him.
“When I told him I was going to make a career out of being an educator and follow in his footsteps, he said, verbatim: ‘I’m proud of you, stay strong, you’re going somewhere in life, and give me a hug,”” Coleman says of the conversation.
The men hugged, and then Barry asked for Coleman to snap a picture of the two of them. According to Coleman, the conversation lasted about ten minutes. When Barry’s driver reentered the restaurant, Coleman figured that was his cue, and he left.
Barry reportedly collapsed on his way back home from from getting something to eat at Uniontown and was pronounced dead at United Medical Center soon after.
“He was Marion Barry in every sense of the word,” Coleman says of his interaction with Barry right before he died. “He’s my hero—make sure you put that in there.”
Photo courtesy of Byron Coleman