Change Makers: Major Barnett, First African American hired by City of Binghamton
BINGHAMTON (WBNG) -- February is Black History Month and all month long, WBNG will be highlighting change-makers from in and around the Southern Tier.
This week, we spoke with the family of Major Barnett Sr. He was the first African American hired by the City of Binghamton.
He was born in Alabama in 1922. Two of his sons, Major Barnett Jr. and Frank Barnett, said their father did not speak about his experiences often.
“What he did say was that he grew up in hard times, it was hard for people of color at that time and he wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” said Major Barnett Jr. “He had left at an early age and enlisted in the Army Airforce at Fort Benning Georgia and said he never wanted to go back there and he never went back.”
“Just because of the color of your skin you couldn’t walk into a restaurant, sit down at a certain table, couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. “There were certain things you couldn’t do and just because you wanted to have rights like everyone else you would have dogs sicked on you or water sprayed on you,” said Frank Barnett. “But they survived it.”
Barnett Sr. along with his family became part of “The Great Migration” of African Americans to the north, first going to Detroit before calling Binghamton home.
In the mid 1960′s, he broke barriers in the Southern Tier, by becoming the first African American hired by the City.
However, Frank Barnett said the process was not a simple one.
“The Urban Renewal had a lawyer for him to get the spot,” said Frank Barnett, “There were no African Americans working and they almost had to threaten a lawsuit for them to hire him which is crazy. And then after he had the job and worked for a year they were supposed to be paying him 50 cents or 75 cents more an hour and they had to go back and reimburse him. They went through a lot. It was way more than just filling out an application and seeing if you’ll get a job even in Binghamton.”
He worked for the Parks Department as a seasonal recreation attendant, then as a permanent laborer, and was later put in charge of Columbus Park.
“Kids loved it,” said Major Barnett Jr., “We had ice skating, basketball, we grew up there, that was our home.”
He retired after decades of service. But his daughter Cynthia Chester said his work was not done.
“My father was always a hard worker, my parents period,” said Chester, “I just know they instilled in us working hard no matter what to get what you want in life.”
He also served the community as Assistant Pastor of Mt. Sinai Church and Third Vice President of the NAACP in Binghamton.
A key to the city was presented to him by Mayor Ryan in 2013 for his exemplary service.
His Daughter, Marguerite Kennedy said their family strives to make him proud in all they do.
“We show our children and our nieces and nephews and grandchildren how far we came and how far we want to see them go,” said Kennedy, " I have a nephew who is a police officer so that went a little further, that’s something we never thought we would see.”
The children said the legacy of their father, who died in 2013, will continue to live on, and we can all take note of how he lived his life.
“We were raised knowing fighting and arguing is not going to get you anywhere, just try your hardest to get along,” said Chester, " I can hear my father, he always said it’s always easier to catch bees with honey so just learn how to be sweet, angry isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
There is a plaque dedicated to Barnett in Columbus Park where the family has been holding a memorial picnic annually.
Follow these links to view our pieces about our other Change Makers Bud Fowler and the Trinity AME Zion Church.
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