by Julian Rankin
A community is made real by its people. Clusters of houses, in fact, can hardly be called a neighborhood if the occupants never open their doors or share their lives with those around them.
Dr. Helen Barnes, longtime Fondren resident, understands what it takes to nurture a thriving community. She has lived to see progress in Mississippi and continues to contribute to that advancement. During her career in medicine, she worked to improve the lives of others, and in retirement, she has reached out her hand to another, younger generation.
For the better part of the last decade, Barnes has been an “adopter” at nearby Boyd Elementary School. It began when she retired from University of Mississippi Medical Center (having been the first black faculty member in 1969). Through her service on the board of Fondren Renaissance, she was presented with an opportunity to build a relationship with the school. “For a year or two after I quit (working), I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” she says. “I was 75, so I should’ve been ready to quit, but I wasn’t. So, I said I’ve got to find something to do.”
Barnes herself was once an eager young student in Jackson. She lived on Blair Street, back when the city was still wide open and grassy, and she and her siblings would stake the cows on the grounds of the mental hospital to graze while they were at school. She moved away with her mother, but Mississippi came back into her life when she was looking for a path to medical school in the 1950s. She was interested in the University of Mississippi. Barnes’ grandmother, who still lived in Jackson, had been the nanny for Ross Barnett and she called on him for advice. Barnett, then a lawyer, explained that Ole Miss was not an option, but he did mention a possible medical scholarship for those who would contract to come back to Mississippi.
Barnes got the scholarship and completed school at Howard University. As part of the agreement, she signed on to practice in the underserved community of Greenwood, where she treated many of the sharecroppers who could barely afford shots of penicillin. The realities and turmoil of race relations in the South only built her resolve up stronger. “You stiffen your back up and you get a little hard nosed,” she says. “but you just move on. I see pictures of soldiers in war – poor old things, their shoes are all torn up and they have mud all on them. But they walk. They just grab a hold of each other and they walk.”
She went back to New York and worked in a hospital there for a few years until she was called once again to return to the state, this time to help run a community health center in Mound Bayou in the Mississippi Delta. It would be her last stop before taking a position at UMMC and taking up residence in Fondren. It was during that process that she observed the importance of local people taking care of local problems. “If people don’t have to live in the community, they lose what’s going on in the community.”
Now, Barnes takes all of the lessons she has garnered from a lifetime of service and uses them to impact the lives of students at Boyd. She has identified needs and met them. Among Barnes’ contributions to the school are funding drives to resurface old floors covered in toxic carpet, repaint the auditorium, and purchase a new piano for the students. The school library now bears her name in recognition of the work she’s done.
When Dr. Barnes sees something that needs fixing at the school, she reaches out to her former colleagues for support. And they always come through. By building genuine relationships over the years, she has, quite by happenstance, built up a coalition of Boyd Elementary supporters. And Barnes, likewise, has been molded by the people she has lived and worked beside. “Your sense of what you do comes, I think, from all the people you meet during the course of your life. And relationships – relationships are the greatest. That’s just how you make it from one place to the next.”
August 2017: Dr. Barnes was honored by her alma mater, The University of Mississippi Medical Center, named a hall-of-fame recipient for 2017. Her speech was said to have been the shortest of the night -Â and the funniest:Â http://bit.ly/ummcalumsawards17