Closing Up Shop – Mary Barnes reflects on decades of preserving Danville’s history
The chairs had been removed. That’s what Mary Barnes remembers about her first experience at what was then the Danville Public Library. At 12 years old, Barnes was part of a group of Black students who integrated 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 lessons because seats had been removed when minorities started using the library,” Barnes said.
As a Black child of the 1950s, she encountered racism and segregation growing up. Those experiences caused Barnes to leave the River City behind. But a need to help her family caused her to return years later. And, over time, she became irreplaceable to the city.
She has been a teacher, a minister, a safe haven, a community’s grandmother, a historian, and a friend to people in many of the city’s neighborhoods. In her own way, because of her life and work, she has become as much a part of Danville’s history as the pieces she has rescued over the years. Now, as she has closed her antiques operation and joined the board of directors at the Danville Historical Society, the woman some know as “Miss Bunnie” has time to reflect on her life.
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 to put the city on the map,” said Barnes. “We worked the seasonal jobs in the tobacco factories at minimum wage and with little to no benefits. Thankfully, many of us learned skill trades that benefited our families and our community.”
Barnes described the historic Almagro community as an “independent village with most amenities supplied within the village.”
Almagro dates back to 1883, operating 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, along with its own town hall.
As Barnes said, Almagro was self-sufficient, both before and after being annexed into the city. It had a school, grocery stores, and a baseball field. By 1972, though, Barnes was ready to leave. She married and moved with her husband to Winston Salem, NC.
Leaving and Coming Back
“My husband was a pastor, and he died of leukemia when our twin sons were eight months old,” said Barnes. “I reared them in Salisbury, where we were very active in church, civic, and community affairs. They graduated scholar-athletes and attended North Carolina State University.”
For some time, Barnes continued her life away from Danville. However, when her mother became ill in 1993, Barnes returned home. She fell right back into the community and worked diligently at a number of places, including Hughes Memorial Home, Advance Auto, Goodwill, and George Washington High School (GWHS). That’s when she started going to flea markets, buying and selling.
Finding a sense of purpose in the flea markets, Barnes wanted to expand her skill set.
“I decided to take the knowledge I learned at flea marketing and auctions to start collecting more antique and vintage items,” she said.
Barnes met William and Anne Gammon, antique entrepreneurs, through William’s sister, whom Barnes was training to be a cashier at Goodwill. Barnes knew she needed some proper training in the art of antiques and was glad to meet the Gammonses.
“I learned a great deal through them and, in time, had enough merchandise to start my own business, Bunnie’s Variety Store,” Barnes recalled. “I rented space at 413 Jefferson Street after flea marketing and out-of-town vending.”
That’s how many people still know and refer to Mary Barnes – as Miss Bunnie from Miss Bunnie’s Variety Store.
Helping the Community
But Barnes did more than just run an antiques store. The Jefferson Street community was also the home of many GWHS students, and they loved stopping by her store after school and visiting.
“Some of the students needed a safe place to be until their parents got home from work,” said Barnes. “At that time, the community had a high crime rate, and being with me took them off the streets, and they could do homework with an on-site tutor. Me.”
She established grade-level treasure boxes to reward the kids for good grades and bringing home report cards. Barnes met all of the parents and held community fun days, cookouts, SOL (Standards of Learning) remedial sessions, SAT prep classes, and tutoring.
She did whatever she saw was needed, Barnes said. “That included supplying food, clothes, counseling — all those grandma tasks that come with community advocacy.”
Her neighbors agree that Barnes does a lot for the area.
“Mary is one of the most genuine and kind people I’ve ever experienced,” said her neighbor, Cody Foster. “She as a person has given more to this community than anyone even realizes.”
Collecting the City’s History
Over time, her antique operation also grew. While Barnes has numerous antiquing stories, one of the more 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 subcontractor for Shield’s Realty and set up residences for auctions and estate sales,” said Barnes. “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 Jefferson Street in 2013. She retired from the school system in 2015 and planned to keep the store open full time. However, around that time, she fell ill.
“I knew I needed 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 a meeting space for small groups to sit and reminisce in this very peaceful place.”
Barnes recently quietly sold her buildings.
“Many people have found out and expressed regrets that I’m gone,” she said. “But I told them I’m old now, and it’s time for a change. Just as the city of Danville has changed, so have the communities and neighbors. We all can be instrumental in making this a better place to live.”
Now, Barnes has started a new chapter in her life. After selling her buildings, she also donated her antiques collection to the Danville Historical Society. This includes more than a century of Danville’s history, covering everything from Civil War items to civil rights protests.
“Her collection as a whole spans some of the most pivotal decades of Danville history,” said Danville Historical Society Executive Director Robin Marcato. “From Police Chief McCain’s shirt from Bloody Monday to material from Swain Tobacco and dozens of scrapbooks, school yearbooks, and letters, she’s preserved and protected this city’s history for years. We’re honored that she chose us to continue that mission.”
Later this year, residents will be able to see some of her collection, as the Historical Society is looking into holding some “pop-up” exhibits in the city. More information and dates can be found on the website, danvillehistory.org. Barnes added that even though she’s retiring, she will still be involved in historical preservation, working as part of the society’s board.
While Mary Barnes may say she’s slowed down, her passion for the community and service is as strong as it has ever been. In addition to the Danville Historical Society, she has been involved with and an outspoken organizer of Virginia Organizing, the NAACP, Mothers Stronger TwoGether, Love in Action, and a volunteer with the DPD Homicide Division. She has also been a PTSA supporter and active church member.
“I’ll always be looking for ways to help the community,” Barnes said. “Just at a slower pace.”
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Danville Va. 24543
Erica Turman has written for publications across the Commonwealth of Virginia for more than five years. She works full time in the Communications and Public Affairs Office at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where she lives with her husband and their two dogs. When she’s not working, she likes traveling, reading, and eating good food on the weekend.