In the press of daily life, it can be all too easy to forget the past, and the sacrifices made by our forebears that helped create a more equitable society.
SUNY Broome instructor Major Barnett wants you to remember.
His parents’ story began in the farm fields of the American South, before they made the trek north to Binghamton as part of the Great Migration, the northward movement of nearly 6 million African-Americans fleeing poverty and discrimination. His father, Major Barnett Sr., became the first black employee ever hired by the City of Binghamton and worked for more than three decades in Parks Department. The elder Barnett was awarded the key to the city before his death at the age of 91, and later memorialized with a monument at a Columbus Park.
A veteran, social worker and SUNY Broome alumnus, Dr. Barnett headed the local chapter of the NAACP for four years. Founder of the Southern Tier Underground Historical Society, he is also the author of two children’s books: Rethinking Harriet Tubman and Freedom to Grow. The latter, published in 2006, details his family’s visit to Selma, Alabama, his father’s hometown and a birthplace of the Civil Rights movement.
Dr. Barnett returned to his alma mater in 2005, this time on the other side of the desk, and currently teaches courses in sociology, social work and social problems. The opportunity came by way of one of his former professors, Doug Garnar, who asked him to moderate a town hall meeting.
“After that, he approached me to teach,” Dr. Barnett remembered.
While campus has grown and changed dramatically since his SUNY Broome days, some familiar faces remained: Garnar, now professor emeritus, the recently retired Dr. Francis Battisti and Professor Margherita Rossi, who still teaches at the college. In fact, Dr. Barnett initially found it difficult to greet them by first name as a colleague.
“One of my professors always said to treat people professionally. Mr. Garnar, Dr. Battisti, they said to call them by their first names and I couldn’t,” he remembered.
From the Army to the classroom
Dr. Barnett graduated from SUNY Broome – the Broome Community College — in the early 1990s with a Liberal Arts degree, and then went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work. After earning his M.S.W., he went on to earn a master’s degree in educational administration from the University at Albany, and finally a doctorate in education management and leadership from Capella University.
But early on in life, he didn’t see college as a part of his future. “When I was younger, I struggled with school and I didn’t see the value of it. My mom asked me if I wanted more out of life,” he reflected. “That haunted me, and propelled me. What more could I have in life?”
After high school, he joined the Army, and was stationed in California and later in Berlin, Germany, before the Berlin Wall fell. He then served in the Army Reserve, and eventually returned to school as a “mature student,” in more than just age.
“Boys take a long time to mature. I had to evolve,” he said. “I consider that when I’m dealing with students.”
While studying to become a social worker, he sometimes faced challenges from those who questioned whether a veteran could truly succeed in the field. “It’s about peace and helping people,” Dr. Barnett explained.
He went on to author a small manual for veterans returning to their studies while coping with PTSD or brain trauma. He is also a foster parent and adoptive parent, which gives him additional insight into taking people where they are and realizing their struggles.
Sometimes the path to college doesn’t take shape directly after high school, and that’s okay. Students considering college shouldn’t be afraid of taking time off and reflecting on their goals, so as to get the most out of their experience, Dr. Barnett reflected. Prospective students also need to make sure they are academically prepared for the rigor of a college classroom, and consider future career options.
And they also need to consider their part in the continuing evolution of history – their family history, and beyond.
“They should strive to go further than their parents,” Dr. Barnett said. “Sometimes students don’t see the sacrifices generations have made before them.”