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Willie Barrow: 8 Decades of Activism, a son lost to AIDS
by Andrew Davis
2004-12-29

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Pictured Rev. Barrow. Photo by Dot Ward. #2 Supporters of the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center gathered at the 7th Annual Celebration of the Heart Benefit, Nov. 13 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Constance Howard, State Rep. 34th District; David E. Munar, Assoc. Director of Policy and Communications, AIDS Foundation of Chicago; and Rev. Barrow were the Heart of Gold Awardees. Photo by Suzanne Kraus

One only needs to speak to the Rev. Dr. Willie Taplin Barrow for a couple of moments to figure out why she's called 'The Little Warrior.' Her eight-decade life has been marked by campaigning during a succession of movements representing almost every demographic—and, still, she continues to fight.

According to a biographical sketch, Barrow grew up in Texas where, as a student in the 1940s, she began her long career as an activist by leading a demonstration of African-American schoolchildren against a segregated school system. Being involved in that campaign—and ultimately emerging victorious—taught Barrow that faith and determination could help change things. She attended Warner-Pacific Theological Seminary in Portland, Ore.; after graduating, Barrow was ordained as a minister.

One of Barrow's most critical roles came when she became a field organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil-rights demonstrations and marches of the 1950s and 1960s. Barrow was responsible for the organization of transportation, shelter, meetings, and rallies. She served as organizer from 1953 through the historical 1965 march on Selma, Ala., where she trained new recruits, put boycotts together, and participated in voter registration drives. During the 1960s, Barrow was among the founders of Operation Breadbasket, a program that provided spiritual guidance to those in need. In 1968, she led a three-person delegation to North Vietnam and took part in the negotiation of the Vietnam Peace Treaty.

Throughout the 1970s to the present, Barrow—who has been honored with a doctor of divinity degree from Liberia and a leadership certificate from Harvard University—participated and continues to take part in a variety of movements, including those representing women; children; and the gay and lesbian community.

Windy City Times and Identity recently spent a few moments with Barrow and discovered that, despite all of her fighting, she still has plenty of energy, passion, and love. The minister discussed everything from her women's leadership institute to her son Keith, who passed away in 1983 of AIDS.

Windy City Times: You once said that you were called into the ministry at age 16. Why do you feel that you were called at such a young age?

Rev. Willie T. Barrow: As a young preacher's kid, I was exposed to a lot: people, drama, and other things. I then discovered that I liked people and I felt called as a leader. I believe that even very young people can sense that they are leaders.

That is why I'm setting up a women's leadership institute. It's for women from 13 to 35 who can lead and who have a desire to do so.

WCT: A lot of people know that you participated in the civil-rights movement, starting in the 1940s and continuing through today. What I want to know is: What was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., like?

WTB: Oh, he was super-smart. However, that wasn't the thing that attracted me to him. The things that I found fascinating were his humility and vision. He wasn't afraid to share the things that he saw and what he felt. He tried to bring together as many people as possible. That ties in with my theme for the 21st century: 'We are not so much divided as we are disconnected.' What struck me most was how he could connect with people—and how important that was.

Personally, I've gone through about several movements. Growing up, my dad was Baptist, my mother was Methodist, and my daddy's baby brother ( who lived with us ) was a Jevohah's Witness. [ Chuckles. ] That was the first movement for me; I called it the reformation movement because it involved reforming different denominations. The second one was the student movement; I was discriminated against at an early age so I got started in that. Then, there was the women's movement with the Equal Rights Amendment. After that, I was involved in the labor movement; it was then that I learned how to organize. Then the labor movement took me to the civil-rights movement. After my son [ came out to me ] , I then became a part of the gay-rights movement. So, I've been through a lot.

WCT: And you're still fighting.

WTB: And I'm still fighting.

WCT: Talk to me about your son.

WTB: I was married for 10 years and the doctor told me that I couldn't bear children. That's when I adopted one child and my son actually came 10 years later. I went on a fast because I was going to Hawaii for an evangelistic meeting; after I came out of this fast, I got pregnant with Keith. He had music in his bones and in his soul; he started writing music when he was eight.

He eventually went into the entertainment business. One night, in 1979, he called me from Paris and said 'Momma, I don't think I'll be able to go on stage tonight. I really feel sick.' I said, 'Oh, you'll be alright.' I prayed for him and then he called again a couple of hours later and he said: 'Momma, I can't perform. I have to go; they have to take me to the hospital.' That's when he found out that he had [ what was later determined to be ] HIV.

WCT: Is it true that you have 127 godchildren?

WTB: Well, now I have 130! One of them ( the child I adopted before the one I had ) is the dean of students at New York University and she's been married for 38 years.

WCT: Why are you so committed to young people?

WTB: I think I'm just committed to people, period. It's so strange; all of these people say that they want to be my godchildren. They're of all races and creeds; they're Jews, Arabs, Asians, Mexicans, and Blacks. It's like a rainbow.

WCT: It really is. You have your own Rainbow Coalition!

WTB: [ Laughs. ] Absolutely! I breathe it and I eat it; it's my life. So many of our young people can't talk to their parents. When my son went to school, he ran into so many people who said that they couldn't talk to their parents; he would tell them to come home and talk to me because he knew that they could talk to me about anything.

When Keith got AIDS, he said, 'Momma, don't hide it! I have to live with it and you have to live with it.'

I was one of the first leaders in Chicago who really talked about [ the disease ] . I called 17 pastors together and that's when I announced [ that Keith had AIDS ] . I even made one of the first AIDS quilts.

WCT: What's in your future?

WTB: Training other women; when you think about [ women like ] Willie Barrow and Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs [ who co-founded the DuSable Museum with her late husband, Charles ] , we have to keep that legacy going. We're setting up what will be called The Barrow Institute. They've got to remember me! [ Laughs. ]

WCT: There's no way anyone's going to forget you. You're truly unforgettable.

WTB: Well, thank you!

Many thanks to Delores MeBain of the MeBain Media Group for arranging the interview.

This article is also the January Identity Cover Story.


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