Durham’s Ernie Barnes proved to be both an athlete and artist
Durham native Ernie Barnes might have been from a neighborhood called the Bottoms, but he propelled his way to the top using sports and art. He was nurtured by a mother determined to expose him to a larger world and by a supportive segregated black community.
Barnes, who would have celebrated his 80th birthday July 15, will be remembered through his paintings. "The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes" exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of History opens June 29 and runs through March 3.
The show features 37 oil and acrylic paintings, including a reproduction of his most famous painting, “The Sugar Shack,” which many people saw for the first time on soul singer Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album cover and during the closing credits of “Good Times,” the television sitcom that ran from 1974 to 1979.
In addition, 20 of Barnes' artifacts will be on display, including his painting palette, brushes and blocked letters he earned as a football player at Hillside High School in Durham.
“Although I never got a chance to meet Ernie in person, I was so honored to be able to work on this exhibit, because now I feel like I do know him,” said Katie Edwards, the museum's pop culture curator. “He was a remarkable human being who defied odds and became a renowned artist. This exhibit is an amazing opportunity for the state of North Carolina. It’s a chance for visitors to see a number of Ernie’s works that he painted throughout his life and see the impact that the state had on him and his career.”
Edwards says the works are divided into three sections: Durham roots, his NFL career and his artistic journey.
Ernest Barnes Jr. grew up near the Hayti District of Durham. His father, Ernest E. Barnes Sr., was a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company, and his mother, Fannie Mae Barnes, was a housekeeper for prominent Durham attorney Frank L. Fuller.
“He was a brown-skin boy from a nice family but from the wrong side of the tracks,” says Durham native and childhood friend Irwin Holmes.
“Ernie and I went to school together,” Holmes said. “He was an athlete by nature. He was always big for his age. … Our senior year of high school we were both voted the top athletes in our class.”
Holmes, who graduated third in his Hillside High School class of 1956, enrolled at N.C. State as an electrical engineering major and joined the tennis team, becoming N.C. State’s first African-American athlete.
Meanwhile, Barnes was offered 26 athletic scholarships but decided to attend North Carolina College at Durham, which eventually became North Carolina Central University.
Barnes enrolled at North Carolina College in the fall of 1956 and offi- cially left the spring of 1960. While the school has no record of his major, folks knew Barnes wanted to be an artist.
Artist Ernie Barnes at the Baltimore Colts training camp in 1960.