Ernest “Ernie” Eugene Barnes, Jr. (July 15, 1938 - April 27, 2009) is considered one of the leading African-American painters and is well-known for his unique style of elongation and movement. He was also a former professional football player, actor and author.
Ernest Barnes, Jr. was born during the Jim Crow era in “the bottom” community of Durham, North Carolina. His father, Ernest E. Barnes, Sr. (1900 - 1966) worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company. His mother, Fannie Mae Geer (1905 - 2004) oversaw the household staff for prominent attorney Frank Fuller, Jr.
On days when Fannie allowed “June” (Barnes’ nickname to his family and childhood friends) to accompany her to work, Barnes had the opportunity to peruse the art books and listen to the classical music in Fuller’s study. The young Ernest was intrigued and captivated by the works of master artists. By the time Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the works of such masters as Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. When he entered junior high, he could appreciate, as well as decode, many of the cherished masterpieces within the walls of mainstream museums – although it would be a half dozen more years before he was allowed entrance because of his race.
A self-described chubby and unathletic child, Barnes was taunted and bullied by classmates. He continually sought refuge in his sketchbooks, hiding in the less-traveled parts of school away from the other students. He was caught one day in a quiet area by Tommy Tucker, the masonry teacher who was also the weightlifting coach and a former athlete. Tucker was intrigued with Barnes' drawings. He asked the aspiring artist about his grades and goals. Tucker shared his own experience of how bodybuilding improved his strength and outlook on life. That one encounter would instill in Barnes discipline and dedication that would permeate his life. In his senior year at Hillside High School, Barnes became the captain of the football team and state champion in the shot put and discus throw.