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New Orleans I didn’t know Rev. William Barnwell or his family well, but I knew them for a long time and in many different capacities.
I first met Barnwell and some of his family when we were organizing the Household Workers Organizing Committee, a union of domestic workers in New Orleans in 1978-79. The organization, which was in many ways the precursor of our efforts in the 1980s to organize and unionize home care workers, began as an effort to organize domestic workers to take advantage of finally being covered under the federal minimum wage at that time. Among our ideas was to try and operate a hiring hall of sorts and to sign labor contracts with employers for domestic workers. Searching for allies during that period we somehow found Barnwell who was connected to Tulane at the time as an Episcopal minister. Over a period of several meetings and back and forth, we negotiated a labor contract for his maid, which became the first and only such agreement we had.
Barnwell was in and out of New Orleans, but I started running into him again over the last dozen years in the city. His daughter lived in the neighborhood and was a sometime customer at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, and she reconnected us. Barnwell wrote a book, and we had him talk about the book at one of our Fair Grinds Dialogues. He would delight in telling me the story of how his maid had come to them a year or so later to talk about some work or wage-related issue and said, they could handle it “without bringing in the union man.”
He had become a prisoner rights advocate and showed up regularly as an activist on issues of racial, social, and economic justice. He was a regular at meetings of the Justice and Beyond coalition where mi companero and other old ACORNers were in constant contact with him.
Word had been filtering into the house while we were working during this stay-at-home period that Rev. Barnwell was in the hospital. One day doing well, and another doing poorly. He had been having health issues, the kind of underlying issues for a man of eighty-one, that are the hallmark of coronavirus victims. Some reports list him as having the virus, others say he tested positive. It hardly matters in the end. It’s a footnote at best to a life lived on principle and for purpose.
The family had a small funeral, but how in corona-time do others celebrate his life and speak of the loss to his family? Justice and Beyond organized a mobile processional that convened on a usually busy street bisecting the deserted Tulane University campus. We were car number six of perhaps thirty, not counting several bicyclists that pulled out at 6 PM with flashing lights to slowly drive through the neighborhood to his home. Rev. Gregory Manning, one of the J&B conveners, stood on the curb with a cross. Neighbors, dressed casually or in athletic gear with children and dogs, lined the street offering waves and thumbs up. We slowed down as we passed so mi companera could hand a small vase with flowers from our yard to a neighbor so she could bear it to the widow, then we turned at the next street and made our way back home.
Somehow this makeshift processional in honor of Rev. Barnwell’s life was both fitting and oddly appropriate. It wasn’t a second line, because it couldn’t be. It was unique. It was somber. It was silent. It felt right and gave comfort to his community and family perhaps in an even more powerful and collective way than the traditional course might have offered.