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Syd Barnett: West Indian Activist, Neighborhood Champion


August 06, 2012

Syd Barnett was a mechanic, a musician and a businessman, but most of all he was a community activist who worked hard to improve his neighborhood.

Barnett died on June 19 at age 96. He was living in Bloomfield.

Barnett was born on Nov. 21, 1915, in Westmoreland, Jamaica, where his father owned a garage and was an agent for the Marmon car company. When he was in his early teens in Kingston, Jamaica, Barnett learned that the United States was recruiting Jamaicans to work on the Panama Canal.

The job required extensive testing, which Barnett passed, but the obstacle was his weight. The minimum for the job was 136 pounds, but Barnett, who was 5-foot-7, weighed less than that, so he returned several times to retake the test. He tried a diet of bananas and water but was a still a few pounds shy, but the officials chose him anyway because of his knowledge of mechanics, which he had learned at his father's garage.

Together with about 90 other Jamaicans, Barnett was sent to the Canal Zone in December 1940, where his job was to help bomb-proof the canal. He worked on a train ferrying equipment and materiel for four years, returning to Jamaica at a time when even the short sea passage was dangerous because of the German submarines.

He had barely arrived back in Jamaica, laden with presents from the Army commissary, when he had the opportunity to work in the U.S. as part of the War Food Administration. The U.S. was trying to help supply food to countries that were at war, but because so many American men and women were in the armed services, a huge effort was made to recruit foreigners to work in agricultural production, and an invitation went out to Jamaica.

When Barnett arrived in Miami after another dangerous sea voyage, there was no drinkable water, so he and the other Jamaicans were given money to buy soda. They joined the line of white customers at a small mom and pop shop and received a rude introduction to racism, as they were insulted and told to join the line of black customers. They had never experienced discrimination based on color in Jamaica, Barnett later told an interviewer.

Barnett was sent to Hartford, where he drove a truck for the Woodworth Tobacco Co. He had learned to drive as a teenager, and driving paid more than the backbreaking work of picking tobacco. He worked in tobacco for several years until immigration officials tried to deport him and his fellow workers. He hired a lawyer, who argued that together with his work in Panama, Barnett had worked for the U.S. government for nearly a decade and deserved to stay.

Barnett sold his car in order to post a bond and was allowed to stay, but it took several more years for him to become a citizen.

He bought a two-family house on Brook Street in Hartford's North End.

He welcomed many friends and relatives who emigrated to Hartford; some stayed for months, said Kay Taylor-Brooks, his great niece, who stayed there with her family after leaving Jamaica. "He sponsored a lot of people."

The house had a large bar downstairs, and was the site of many parties.

He opened Barnett's Clothing and Variety Store on Albany Avenue, where he taught his tailors how to sew and was one of the first black men in Hartford to receive a government Small Business Loan, his great niece said.

Seeking companionship, Barnett and other Jamaicans met regularly to play cricket; their games evolved into parties and, eventually, the West Indian Social Club in 1950. (It was going to be called the Jamaican Club, but one of the players was from St. Kitts, so they made the name more inclusive.)

Barnett was one of the club's founders as well as one of its most enthusiastic dancers. "No one could keep up with him on the dance floor," said Parker Brooks.

He dressed formally, drove a huge Cadillac and loved pomp and circumstance, she said. "He had a fun side to him and he was very humble."

Barnett began attending the Shiloh Baptist Church, and organized a singing group, The Sacred Voices of Jamaica, that performed in many area churches. He played drums, the maracas and the tambourine, and after Harry Belafonte popularized calypso, formed a group called the Caribbean Syncopators that performed for 25 years.

"Music was his life," said Taylor-Brooks.

Barnett organized the Clay Hill Neighborhood Association to lobby for improvements to his neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city and the most underserved, and was the group's president.

When the former McCook Hospital was being closed, he worked tirelessly with others to open Community Health Services, a clinic that originally was in an old supermarket on Albany Avenue, but today is in an elegant new building. The clinic was run by Dr. Evans Daniels, and Barnett was a member of the board for 26 years.

Barnett successfully lobbied theU.S. Postal Serviceto open a local branch that would be more convenient than the main office on High Street, and was one of the first members of the local Urban League. He was a president of the Clay Hill Neighborhood Development Project to rehabilitate houses in the area, and persuaded the city of Hartford to build a small park on Brook Street. He also was influential in persuading an insurance company to donate money to buy smoke detectors for houses in the area, said Ed French, a longtime friend.

"He was very strong on empowering people so they had a voice," said former Mayor Eddie Perez, who met Barnett as a teenager when Barnett chased him off his garage roof with a 2-by-4. "Everyone knew him as Mr. Barnett. He was a village elder."

The two men worked together for more than a decade on community improvement projects. "He was my mentor," Perez said.

Barnett, who was a member of the Republican Town Committee, made an unsuccessful run for the state legislature in the 1970s. He was married twice and divorced, and is survived by his son, George, who lives in Quebec, as well as four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

He died of complications from injuries he suffered in a fall.

After moving to a retirement community about seven years ago, he was a regular at the talent shows, lip-syncing calypso songs, and maintaining his daily routine of walking.

"He was a no nonsense guy, and very persistent when getting things done," said Taylor-Brooks.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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