ERICA TURMAN Special to Registry & Bee
The chairs had been removed. This is what Mary Barnes remembers of her first experience at what was then the Danville Public Library.
At age 12, Barnes was among a group of black students who entered Robert E. Lee Jr. High School. The public library was up the street at the time, in the Sutherlin mansion.
“I couldn’t sit and do my classes because the seats were removed when minorities started using the library,” Barnes said.
As a black kid in the 1950s, she encountered intense racism and segregation growing up. These experiences prompted Barnes to leave River City. But a need to help her family led her to return, years later. And, over time, it has become irreplaceable.
She has been a teacher, pastor, shelter, community grandmother, historian, and friend to residents of many parts of the city. In her own way, because of her life and work, she is as much a part of Danville history as the rooms she has saved over the years. Now that she’s closed her antique shop, the woman some know as “Miss Bunnie” is looking back on her life.
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Growing up in the River City
Barnes grew up in the Almagro and Darby Road communities of Danville during the most intense times of segregation.
“The social climate in the city was tense for minorities, even though we did the work that helped put the city on the map,” Barnes said. “We worked seasonal jobs in tobacco factories at minimum wage and with little or no benefits. Fortunately, many of us learned skilled trades that benefited our families and our community.”
Barnes describes the historic community of Almagro as an “independent village with most amenities provided in the village”.
You can date Almagro to 1883, functioning as its own town just west of Danville. One of the few black towns in existence at the time, Almagro had its own police department and post office, as well as its own town hall.
As Barnes said, Almagro was self-sufficient, both before and after its annexation to the city. There was a school, grocery stores and a baseball field.
By 1972, however, Barnes was ready to go. She married and moved with her husband to Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Leave and come back
“My husband was a pastor and he died of leukemia when our twin sons were 8 months old,” Barnes said. “I raised them in Salisbury, where we were very active in religious, civic and community affairs. They graduated as varsity athletes and attended North Carolina State University.”
For a time, Barnes continued his life away from Danville. However, when her mother fell ill in 1993, Barnes returned home. She fell back into the community and worked diligently at a number of places including Hughes Memorial Home, Advance Auto, Goodwill and George Washington High School. That’s when she started going to flea markets, buying and selling.
Finding purpose in flea markets, Barnes decided to expand his skills.
“I decided to use the knowledge gained from flea marketing and auctions to start collecting more antique and vintage items,” she said.
Knowing that she needed proper training in the art of antiquing, Barnes met William and Anne Gammon, antique contractors, through William’s sister, whom Barnes was training to become a cashier at Goodwill. .
“I learned a lot from them, and over time I had enough merchandise to start my own business, Bunnie’s Variety Store,” Barnes recalled. “I rented space at 413 Jefferson St. after flea marketing and out-of-town selling.”
This is the number of people who still know and refer to Mary Barnes, as Miss Bunnie from Miss Bunnie’s Variety Store.
Help the community
But Barnes did more than run an antique store. The Jefferson Street community was also home to many GW students, and they liked to stop by his store after school and visit.
“Some students needed a safe place until the parents got home from work,” Barnes said. “At that time, the community had a high crime rate, and being with me got them off the streets, and they could do their homework with a tutor there. Me.”
She created school-grade treasure chests, to reward kids for good grades and to take home report cards. Barnes met with all the parents and organized community fun days, barbecues, learning standards remedial sessions, SAT prep classes, and tutoring.
“[I did] everything I saw was necessary,” Barnes said. “That included providing food, clothing, counseling – all those grandma’s chores that come with community advocacy.”
His neighbors agree that Barnes does a lot for this area.
“Mary is one of the most genuine and kind people I have ever met,” said her neighbor, Cody Foster. “As a person, she has given more to this community than anyone realizes.”
Collect the history of the city
Over time, its antiques operation has also grown. While Barnes has many stories of antiquities, one of the most memorable finds included a KKK robe and hood. A more positive memory includes reading old letters from the 1920s found in an old house she salvaged.
“I worked with a contractor for Shield’s Realty and set up residences for auctions and estate sales,” Barnes said. “Several local jobs were in Forest Hills, the West Main Street area, Shadow Wood, Pittsylvania County, and a mansion in Martinsville.”
Eventually Barnes became the owner of 413-415 in 2013. She retired from the school system in 2015 and planned to keep the store open full time. However, around the same time, she fell ill.
“I knew I needed a rest before the Grim Reaper came to claim me,” she said. “So I kept the merchandise in place in the store and the two storage buildings, only opening to have an occasional yard sale and meeting space for small groups to sit and reminisce in this very peaceful place.”
All good things must come to an end, and Barnes recently quietly sold his properties.
“A lot of people found out and expressed regret that I left,” she said. “But I told them I was old now and it was time for a change. Just as the town of Danville has changed, the communities and the neighbors have changed. We can all help make it a better place to live. .”
After selling his buildings, Barnes also donated his collection of antiquities to the Danville Historical Society. This includes over a century of Danville history, covering everything from civil rights protests to articles of civil war.
“His collection as a whole spans some of the most pivotal decades in Danville history,” said Danville Historical Society executive director Robin Marcato. “From Police Chief McCain’s Bloody Monday shirt to Swain Tobacco material and dozens of scrapbooks, yearbooks and letters, she has preserved and protected this town’s history for years. We are honored that she chose us to pursue this mission.
Later this year, residents will be able to view some of its collection, as the historical society plans to hold “pop-up” exhibits in the city. Barnes added that even as she retires, she will still be involved in historic preservation, working with society to do so.
But while Barnes can say she’s slowed down, her passion for community and service is stronger than it’s ever been. In addition to the Danville Historical Society, she has been involved and an outspoken organizer with Virginia Organizing, the NAACP, Mothers Stronger TwoGether, Love in Action, and a volunteer with the Danville Police Department Homicide Division. She was also a supporter of the parent-teacher-student association and an active member of the church.
“I will always be looking for ways to help the community,” Barnes said. “Just at a slower pace.”
Turman wrote this piece for the Danville Historical Society.