Mt. Baker couple thrives on life's cutting edge

A venerable Southeast Seattle couple, Miriam and Glover Barnes have been on the cutting edge of social justice since their childhood in the late 1920s. Both warm and welcoming personalities, the tall Glover with his ready smile and the smaller but none-the-less mighty Miriam have made their brick home overlooking Mount Baker Park a gathering place for political movements, liberal intellectual thought, and friendly neighborhood barbecues since the mid-1960s.

Professor Glover Barnes is the son of an Alabama coal miner who read the newspaper to his children. His mother insisted only clean and proper English be spoken in their home. Although his family attended a Methodist church on Sundays, Glover learned to play saxophone in a neighborhood band at the local Catholic Church.

Miriam was brought up in West Virginia by Irish grandparents because her fun loving parents - in those tight, Great Depression years - could not afford the expense or time to raise her. Miriam describes her grandfather as a Christian Democrat who loved opera and her grandmother as an atheist Republican who was keen on baseball. Family meal conversations were lively and educational.

A relationship takes root

What brought Glover and Miriam together as young adults was their common interest in medical sciences and microbiology. After teaching a few years post-college, Miriam applied for a job in the laboratory at Massillon Hospital near Akron, Ohio. Although Miriam had sensed the hospital director's misgivings about hiring a white woman from the South, her anxiety immediately dissolved upon meeting the interviewer, the handsome, smiling African American graduate: Glover Barnes.

"It was friendship at first sight," said Miriam.

That friendship later resulted in marriage and then a move to Buffalo, N.Y., where Miriam ran the office of a radiologist while Glover, on a teaching fellowship, earned his masters degree and later a doctorate in microbiology.

By this time, they were into the 1960s and the throes of the Civil Rights era. However, being a mixed race couple had never been a problem for the Barnes.

According to Glover, they rarely experienced prejudice because he said they never anticipated any. Even so, Miriam admitted that she had stopped going to church because of the racism she felt.

"We really tried to be Christians, but it was like the parting of the Red Sea," Miriam said. "They didn't know how to deal with a mixed race couple."

Finally Glover introduced her to the Unitarian Church where they felt total acceptance, where they have been church leaders from the beginning.

Despite seldom feeling the bite of racial prejudice themselves, the Barnes were at the heart of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Buffalo. Glover helped found the Citizens' Council on Human Relations, which ultimately took the Buffalo school board to the Supreme Court and forced them to integrate their schools. The couple also worked together on such issues as open housing, legalizing abortion, and defeating the Feinberg disclosure policy requiring employees to swear they had never been a member of the communist party. Miriam said she would come home from work in those days and find the house full of rabbis, nuns, and lawyers busily organizing protests that would later fill the downtown streets.

Settling in Seattle

By 1967, when the Barnes took a vacation out to the West Coast, they were joined by their two pre-teen sons, Erik and Noel. On the way, Glover stopped to explore employment prospects at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland and at the University of Washington in Seattle. They came to Washington due to a better salary offer as professor of urology at the University of Washington, where Glover still works full time to this day. Retrospectively Glover views the U.W. as a better choice for him because it has a primate center through which to pursue his research, which includes his team developing a male contraceptive that reduced sperm count in apes to almost zero.

Miriam also worked at the university for several years teaching and publishing alongside Glover. She taught in a program preparing high school dropouts to obtain equivalency diplomas and careers in laboratory science. Some of the couple's fondest memories are of students in that program, one of whom, a tough streetwise African American, later attended Harvard.

It was Glover who had come first to Seattle and rented a temporary home near the university while Miriam contended with her job and their boys attending school in New York. Under the guidance of a fellow faculty member, Glover had searched with little satisfaction for a house in Laurelhurst near the university. But he found the neighborhood stiff and not to his liking. He was pleased when, after a yearlong search, Miriam found their home in Mount Baker.

Activists again

The family did not intend to become involved in political or community affairs in Seattle as they had been in New York, but circumstances dictated otherwise.

While the Barnes were out working in their garden on a warm spring day, a neighbor came by and told them, "We are losing our neighborhood!" He was referring to the phenomenon then known as "white flight." Homes were decreasing in value as vacancies increased.

People buying property were required to make "restrictive covenants," agreeing not to sell their homes to black families. Banks were blatantly redlining Mount Baker and other neighborhoods in Southeast Seattle, refusing mortgage loans to people of color. In fact, the Barnes had bought their home on a contract because they could not obtain a mortgage.

Unwilling to sit back and tolerate these injustices, Glover soon found himself, as president of the Mount Baker Community Club, working to expose redlining and setting up a program for people to get low interest loans when buying a home. When Mayor Charles Royer started a reinvestment commission to work on fair housing issues, he appointed Glover as chair. The commission called for hearings on banks and insurance companies, brought in prominent speakers, and pushed for fair housing legislation at the national level.

Meanwhile as president of the Mount Baker Community Club, Glover also helped jump-start a trend that took the club from the economic doldrums to the beautiful, financially solvent community-gathering place that it is today. The Barnes were leaders in helping nurture the societal trends that prevented the deterioration of one of Seattle's finest old neighborhoods. At the same time, they helped create more just and equitable housing nationwide.

Miriam and Glover Barnes also made their mark on the community through its schools. When their sons began to play football at Franklin High School, they would come home and tell Miriam about other children who had to participate in sports without adequate shoes or clothing. Miriam went to the school and became involved.

She brought parents of the athletes together and formed a Franklin Booster Club, which conducted dances and fundraisers to feed kids and purchase clothing for sports activities.

However, Miriam recalled that it was through the school life of their children that the family most keenly felt the bite of racism. Speaking like New Yorkers, doing their homework faithfully, and carrying band instruments to school set Erik and Noel apart as African American youth. They were harassed and threatened by other boys.

The Barnes' contributions to the community were recognized on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary by a letter of congratulations from Gov. Gary Lock as well as a proclamation by Mayor Greg Nickels declaring Jan. 26, 2002 to be "Miriam and Glover Barnes Day." The proclamation acknowledges the Barnes to be, "an exemplary model of family and civic devotion," and "the spark that ignited the enduring passion of neighborhood renewal that started in Mount Baker and spread throughout the city."

Three years later Southeast Seattle wishes them yet another happy anniversary as they proceed well into the second half-century of a remarkable relationship on the cutting edge.

Mona Lee may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]