When a person is called the conscience of Nashville — as was the Rev. Bill Barnes when he passed away — it can make one wonder whether that means our collective loss marks that the city’s inner voice tugging it toward goodness is totally gone. What does it mean when we lose one powerful and commanding communicator — one that demands others listen?
Barnes, who died at age 86 on Aug. 21, knew long ago that Music City would face increasingly tough times when it came to affordable housing, and saw it happen throughout his lifetime. He grew up in the Edgehill community near the old Greer Stadium. He attended school in Nashville at Fall, Eakin, Cavert and West End High School.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1957 and then Yale Divinity School in 1959, Barnes grew interested in how religion intertwined with cities — and how the various physical structures throughout cities supported or didn’t support the communities around them. He didn’t just watch, but dove in headfirst to work on affordable housing.
In the Edgehill area, Barnes fought as people worked toward turning residential areas into commercial developments. In an interview with the Nashville Civic Design Center, Barnes said he saw the increase in commercial and mixed office space as problematic because in time, he said, the property taxes would undoubtedly increase, making it more difficult for the same families to remain in the area.
It’s one of the same issues the city is dealing with now as areas in North Nashville — and a few years back in East Nashville — grow, develop and gentrify more rapidly than the city has even necessarily planned for.
“You can see the results of it along 17th and 18th, north of Wedgewood,” Barnes said in the interview. “When I grew up here, it was all residential. Folks lived in those places. … We didn't want that [commercial space] in Edgehill.”
Barnes described his work starting one of the city’s first intentionally desegregated church congregations at Edgehill United Methodist Church in 1966 as “a love affair with the neighborhood.” Barnes saw opening the church then as an “opportune time because urban renewal was burgeoning.” Barnes said in the interview that the words “urban renewal” struck him like a match to gasoline. Though he had worked in the ministry before, starting this particular church in ‘66 sent a message.
“I just think that so much that was going on in this country, in terms of renewal and development, will plague us for generations to come,” Barnes said. “Edgehill was pretty much an entirely black community at the time. We began the church in 1966, the summer, there were 15 of us. We really wanted to be part of an interracial congregation that was not only interracial in its make-up but firmly committed to the health of the neighborhood. We kept talking about continuing a love affair with the neighborhood.”
The work of creating affordable housing and desegregation and doing away with systemic racism went hand in hand, and still do. In the years before and at the same time Barnes started his church congregation — where he didn’t retire until 1996 — the country was awakening to deep-rooted racism and was in the middle of the Civil Rights Era. Much has changed since then, but the city (and the United States) are still feeling the resonating effects of long-term white supremacy.
In the time between graduating from Yale Divinity School and coming back to Nashville, Barnes spent time in Europe seeing the aftershock of World War II.
“And churches were being all but abandoned in the wake of World War II,” Barnes said. “So as a result of their struggle there was a huge amount of experimentation. How can the church reverse its stance in post-war Germany. It had kind of stayed in a ghetto mentality and the Lutheran Church is still confessing because of its distance from the political scene, Hitler, that kind of stuff. So there were a lot of experiments going on, and I spent a year on a scooter seeing in nine or 10 countries two or three dozen experiments in the life of the church: the worker priest movement in France, the evangelical academies in Germany, etc.”
While Barnes often said he regretted not participating in the work James Lawson did at Vanderbilt University in 1960, by the time Barnes came in 1962, there was still plenty of work to be done.
“Things were going on in the neighborhoods that we were tired of,” Barnes said. “There were still the marches, the clergy marches down West End. There was huge amount of stuff going on.”
In 1971, Rev. Bill Barnes and local pastors welcomed black students to Edgehill area schools during desegregation. Photo: Edgehill United Methodist Church archives.
Along with public facilities, local skating rinks and businesses were slowly desegregating. Barnes shared this anecdote with the Nashville Civic Design Center: “Even in 1966 and '67 there was a skating rink out on Thompson Lane that catered to white kids in the evening and then at 9 o'clock they sent buses to Sudekum Homes and Napier Homes, the black area, to bring black kids in at 9. And so our church had a bus and we took a bus of folks, mostly black kids, and got in line at 7:30, and the guy closed it. And he closed it a second night and a third and the next night he was open to everybody. Because he couldn't keep closing his business.”
This kind of persistence was necessary, Barnes said.
After retiring from Edgehill United Methodist Church, Barnes co-founded Project Return, a nonprofit focused on working with people who have been convicted of felonies or serious misdemeanors and have been recently released from incarceration, and was the founder of the Organized Neighbors of Edgehill and Barnes Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit formed out of Edgehill United Methodist Church that helps people in the Edgehill area with scholarships for education and job training. Former Mayor Karl Dean honored Barnes by naming Nashville’s affordable housing trust after him in 2013, called the Barnes Housing Trust Fund.
Among several other accomplishments, Barnes taught at Scarritt College and Vanderbilt Divinity School, and was a member of several boards of the United Methodist Conference as well as the Metro Action Commission, Council of Community Services, Metro Social Services, Metro Transit Authority, Tennessee Council of Human Relations, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, Neighborhood Resource Center and A VOICE for the Reduction of Poverty.
It was this broad range of targeted work, and his long history of efforts in the city, that caused Mayor Megan Barry (who also co-sponsored the legislation to name the trust after Barnes as an at-large councilmember) to dub him the “conscience of our city” on the day of his passing.
"The Rev. Bill Barnes was the conscience of our city for decades. He consistently and faithfully gave voice to the voiceless, speaking up for the unhoused, for those who need affordable places to live and for the needs of the Edgehill community,” Barry said.
The great strength of someone like Barnes — and all he did in his long lifetime — is that when someone like the mayor calls him the conscience of the city, we can look back and know that in 86 years, he touched enough lives to ensure that inner voice remains intact. And maybe not just intact, but better than it was when he began — with more people dedicated to the cause than before.
“I’ll miss his thoughtful counsel, and all of Nashville will miss his spirit of service, advocacy and activism” Barry said. “But we know that Rev. Barnes taught generations of leaders who will follow in his footsteps in the years to come. That’s a beautiful legacy."
A memorial service was held Saturday, Sept. 2, at Belmont United Methodist Church to honor Barnes. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the O.N.E./Barnes Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 128261, Nashville, TN 37212 or Project Return, 806 Fourth Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37210.
Cover photo credit: Office of Mayor Megan Barry.