Born in New Orleans, Emery Oakland Barnes was a Canadian and American athlete who later became one of the first Black Members of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.
A Brief History Of Emery Oakland Barnes
Emery was born on December 15, 1929 in New Orleans, Louisiana when Jim Crow laws still enforced racial segregation. His mom cleaned houses while Emery and his friends attempted to catch the most neighbourhood rats in exchange for a day-old loaf of bread.
At the age of 12, Emery and his family moved to Oregon. When old enough, he attended the University of Oregon. He played college football while he worked toward his Bachelor of Science, which he completed in 1954.
Emery had always excelled at sports, specifically football, basketball, and track and field. He was even a member of the 1952 US Olympic Track and Field Team as an alternate hi-jumper.
In 1956, Emery went on to play pro football with the Green Bay Packers, drafted 207 overall. During his time with the team, he wasn’t allowed to stay at the same hotels and had to eat in the kitchen, away from other players.
Emery only played with the Packers for a short time. The following year, in 1957, he emigrated to Canada where he later joined the BC Lions CFL team. He played with the Lions for 3 seasons and was a 1964 Grey Cup champion.
His daughter, Constance Barnes, recalls the stereotyping and verbal abuse the family had to put up with growing up in Canada. She shares, “It was painful … Interestingly enough, though, when my dad would come to [our school in Port Moody], all the kids who were calling us names would run around him and ask him for autographs.”
Once his football career was finished, Emery attended the University of British Columbia. Wanting to help underprivileged communities in the Vancouver area, he earned his Bachelor of Social Work.
He quickly gained popularity within his new field and soon after entering the profession, was urged to run for office by BC Premier Dave Barrett. In 1969, after a failed business venture running a club, he was recruited to the New Democratic Party to campaign for Vancouver Center alongside Bill Deverell.
His daughter explained, “The reason they asked him is because he’s really, really good with people, and he gets things done — and he’s not afraid … Yeah, he was six-foot-six, big towering Black guy, but he was also very warm and embracing.”
While the pair lost the 1969 election, Barnes was not swayed. Three years later, he ran and won with Gary Lauk, becoming the first Black man in the BC Legislature. He stayed in the legislature for 24 years. His focus on social justice, human rights, and poverty earned him a reputation for humbleness and compassion.
One well-known story about Emery was when he accepted an anti-poverty organization’s challenge to move into a Downtown Eastside room for two months. He lived there with only $350 a month, which was equivalent to the provincial welfare rate at the time. He used this experience to lobby for improved social assistance.
Getting Ready For Retirement
In 1994, Emery was elected Speaker of the Legislature. This made him the first Black person to hold the position anywhere in Canada. In 1996 he left politics and the position. But before saying goodbye, his office worked to establish February as Black History Month in the province of BC.
Emery was so much more than an athlete and politician. He spent his life breaking down barriers and finding ways to lift up the Black community, especially in Vancouver.
While he is no longer with us, his legacy of compassion will live on for generations.
Featured Image – Title: Emery Barnes. Author: Gail Arlene Ito. Source: Wikimedia; image resized and cropped