Ivanhoe Donaldson was SNCC activist and a Marion Barry close friend. (AFRO File Photo)
Friends and colleagues of the late former District deputy mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson remembered his passion for civil rights, his keen political acumen, and his close relationship with the late Marion S. Barry. Donaldson, 74, died April 3 of cancer.
Former D.C. first lady Cora Masters Barry remembers Donaldson well. “Ivanhoe’s death is a great loss,” Cora Barry told the AFRO. “He was a man with a rich history.”
Donaldson was raised in New York City and was a student at Michigan State University when the civil rights activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi caught his attention. It was through his work in SNCC that he met Barry and when Barry moved to Washington, D.C. in 1965, Donaldson joined him there shortly afterward.
When Barry decided to launch his political career, Donaldson was at his side. “He and Marion had a great partnership,” Cora Barry said. “He will go down in political history and folklore as the architect of Marion Barry’s political career. Ivanhoe was a brilliant strategist and was very clear on what we were doing.”
Cora Barry said “Ivanhoe called the plays and Marion ran the ball.”
Ivanhoe has been credited with Marion Barry’s election to the District’s school board in 1972, as an at-large member of the first D.C. Council in 1974, and his first election as mayor of the District in 1978. Cora Barry said while Donaldson knew how to win a political race he also knew when to retreat. “This is a little known fact but there was a move to get Marion to run for D.C. Council chairman in 1974 instead of at-large,” she said. “We were looking at a possible ‘draft’ movement to get him to run for that position and the coordinator was David Eaton but ultimately Ivanhoe and others decided to support Sterling Tucker to be chairman.”
The secret to Donaldson’s effectiveness, Cora Barry said, was his ability to get things done and affect change in the political arena. She also said her late husband and Donaldson had a solid friendship. “If Marion needed to be told something, Ivanhoe was the person to do it,” Cora Barry said. “Marion would listen to him. He and Marion respected each other and they had a deep bond and a great friendship.”
“Donaldson was a political genius,” Phinis Jones, a Ward 8 businessman, told the AFRO. “He had a sharp political mind and I watched him operate from afar.”
Jones served as a staffer for then D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark, a Democrat who represented Ward 8 from 1977-1993 and was a Barry ally during Donaldson’s time in the District government. Jones said he believed Donaldson’s skills as a political mastermind was a result of his work in the civil rights movement.
Howard Croft, a former professor at the University of the District of Columbia, said Donaldson’s skills with dealing with people made him effective. “He knew how things needed to be done and he knew how to interact with people,” Croft said. “I remember in the mid-1980s when I managed the campaign of Ted Gray to be the chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. Barry decided he wanted a chair that he had confidence in so he picked Donaldson and Donaldson won the position.”
“I look at Marion Barry, Dorie Ladner, Lawrence Guyot, and Donaldson as changing the country for the better,” Croft said. “Donaldson himself was central to the student civil rights movement, central to the Barry administration, and central to progressive politics in this city and nationally.”
Donaldson did have legal problems. In January 1986, he pleaded guilty to stealing $200,000 from the District government and was sentenced to seven years in prison. After completing his incarceration, Donaldson went into business and lost touch with the District, operating mainly in Chicago and New York City.
“We’ve lost another true leader of our endless struggle for freedom and justice, and a good friend who always challenged me to find my inner best,” Gladys Mack, chief of the D.C. budget during the Barry administration, wrote on the CRMVet.org web site.