Author, arts leader and historian Sandra Turner-Barnes of Lawnside has died

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Sandra Turner-Barnes of Lawnside — writer, arts administrator, and well-known poet — died Friday at the age of 74.

According to her daughter, Richelle Turner of Mount Laurel, she died early Friday morning at Virtua Voorhees Hospital, following complications from ongoing health conditions.

Turner-Barnes was a champion of both the arts and Black history of Camden County.

She was the proud descendent of formerly enslaved African-Americans including Joshua Saddler, who founded Saddlertown in Haddon Township, as well as the Arthur-Still family of Lawnside.

Born in Camden, Turner-Barnes lived most of her life in Lawnside, and was adamant about staying in her hometown, her daughter said Sunday.

"I couldn’t get her to move from Lawnside if I bought a mansion on the beach,'' Turner joked. "She loved every thing about its history, its culture, its people ... She was so proud to be affiliated with Lawnside the way that she has been. She could go on for hours — who was who and how they are related and what her role is in it, and she has so much literacy about it, so many books and so much information about the town.

"Her pastor at Grace Temple Baptist Church (Rev. Charles L. McNeil Sr.) told me, Lawnside meant just as much to my mother as my mother meant to Lawnside.''

A writer's life

Turner-Barnes was former director of the Camden County Cultural & Heritage Commission. At the time of her passing, she served on the board of the Camden County Historical Society, often speaking publicly to adults and students about the history of enslaved peoples of the region.

A well-known poet, Turner-Barnes also led several poetry series in the area. For many years, she hosted a popular Poetry in the Park series at Hopkins House in Cooper River Park, which helped nurture the writing careers of numerous aspiring poets. Up until last month, she also hosted A Place in Time open-mic series at the historical society and The Poet’s House series at the IDEA Center for the Arts in Camden.

Together with her friend and protégé Brother Daoud Bey of Camden, Turner-Barnes for many years administered the Arts for Teens program at Rutgers-Camden, through her role as county cultural & heritage director.

Her poetry community often referred to her as the Cadillac Lady, a reference to one of her early poems and her love for the car.

Turner-Barnes self-published her first book of poetry, “Always A Lady,’’ in 1986, and it was republished in 1995, selling more than 7,000 copies.

Turner-Barnes also won the Ebony Magazine Literary Competition for Short Fiction in 1996 for a short story, "Burnt Bacon,'' about homelessness in Chicago.

In 1997, she began singing jazz, and a video recording she made with pianist Barry Sames was aired on BET’s syndicated TV show, “Jazz Discoveries.’’ She also recorded a poetry and jazz CD, “September Will Never Be The Same.’’

In 1999, she attended the Gwendolyn Brooks Black Writers Conference in Chicago, where she took formal literary instruction for the first time. She would go on to publish three more volumes of verse the most recent, “But, Mostly Love …,’’ was published in 2011.

A children’s book, “Beyond the Back of the Bus,’’ a collaboration with Lawnside illustrator and fellow poet Bernard Collins, Jr., was published (Third World Press) in 2010.

Sandra Turner-Barnes was former head of the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission and served on the board of several groups including the county Historical Society, where she ran a poetry series.
Sandra Turner-Barnes was former head of the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission and served on the board of several groups including the county Historical Society, where she ran a poetry series.

Among other accolades, Turner-Barnes was the recipient of the 1993 George Washington Carver Humanitarian Award; the City of Philadelphia’s 2005 “Movers & Shakers” Award; the 2006 Lawnside Heritage Award; the Walt Whitman Vanguard Writers’ Award from the City of Camden; a 2018 Legacy Award from the City of Camden, as well as the 2007 Diversity Award from the National Education Association. She was a member of the Montford Point Marines Association, Chapter 1 Auxiliary.

A jazz love story

Jazz great Bootsie Barnes, seen here with his wife, poet Sandra Turner-Barnes, died in April 2020 at 82 from COVID-19. Turner-Barnes died late last week.
Jazz great Bootsie Barnes, seen here with his wife, poet Sandra Turner-Barnes, died in April 2020 at 82 from COVID-19. Turner-Barnes died late last week.

Turner-Barnes was predeceased by her husband, Bootsie Barnes, a Philly jazz legend, in April 2020, after he suffered from complications of COVID-19.

More: Bootsie Barnes, Philadelphia jazz saxophonist, dies of COVID-19 at 82

The two met in 1984, while Barnes was playing clubs in Philadelphia, Lawnside and Atlantic City, and she was instantly infatuated. Introduced to Barnes at a party, she said, she and her sister later drove to see him play at a suburban Philadelphia club.

"And that was it. I was done," she remembered. "Music took on a new meaning for me, hearing what he played."

The two married in 1990, and Turner-Barnes remembered how her husband would return from the clubs late at night and wake her to join him for barbecued chicken dinners.

In addition to her daughter Richelle Turner, Turner-Barnes is survived by another daughter, Renelle McDowell, who lives in Maryland; two grandsons and three granddaughters.

Her grandson and Turner's son Reginald Lewis, a graduate of Creative Arts High School, is following in his grandfather's footsteps, getting his doctorate in music at the University of Illinois.

Turner said of the dozens of arts series her mother organized over the years, among her favorites was a Jazzy July series she hosted in Cooper River Park.

A life filled with laughter

When she wasn't working on behalf of South Jersey's young artists or promoting its rich history, Turner-Barnes liked to have fun, her daughter said.

"She loved to laugh,'' Turner said, adding that her mom also had a passion for baking, celebrating birthdays and other family milestones, listening to music and dancing, going to flea markets, playing the card game 500 and watching movies. More recently, she had taken to sending funny TIkToks to her family.

In later years, Turner-Barnes used a cane to walk but didn't let aging slow her down.

She used to love to roller skate, a passion Turner shares, and she would tell her daughter every week, "Go skate for me.''

"The Sandra Turner-Barnes that people thought they knew, that was literally who she was,'' her daughter said. "There was no façade that she had to portray or uphold, that is who she was.''

Recently, she had begun to wear her hair in braids, her daughter recalled. "She loved her gray hair, she was proud of it. She was embracing getting older.''

Making a mark for history

In the last several years, Turner-Barnes played a role in helping the county to memorialize the history of the enslaved African-Americans in South Jersey’s history.

During the 1700s, most of what is now Camden County was farmland, and South Jersey farmers relied heavily on slave labor.

More: Sign marks third Camden site where slaves were bought and sold

A marker erected in September 2020, at Cooper Poynt where slaves were offloaded and sold off ferries from about 1761 to 1765, was the third and final marker to be installed in Camden.

Earlier sites include the northeast corner of Cooper and Front streets, where ferries bearing slaves landed as early as 1727; and the corner of Federal Street and Jersey Joe Walcott Boulevard (formerly Delaware Avenue), where slaves were brought by ferry to the Colonial-era waterline between 1751 and the early 1760s.

Author and poet Sandra Turner-Barnes is seen here in Camden in June.
Author and poet Sandra Turner-Barnes is seen here in Camden in June.

Turner-Barnes, who for years researched the history of enslaved people in Camden County, was asked to read her poem “Camden’s Slave Block’’ at the event, which was attended by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

"Much more than merely flesh and bone was paraded and sold here upon this stone," and "they silenced our drums and then laughed when we cried."

"A Black mother cried here," she read, and "we will never be free of slavery's lock … Blacks in America will forever carry slavery's residue."

Poet Sandra Turner-Barnes reads one of her works at an unveiling ceremony for a marker commemorating a site where slaves were once bought and sold along the Camden Waterfront in September 2020.
Poet Sandra Turner-Barnes reads one of her works at an unveiling ceremony for a marker commemorating a site where slaves were once bought and sold along the Camden Waterfront in September 2020.

Camden County Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr. issued a statement Sunday on behalf of the board in regard to the passing of Turner-Barnes.

“It is with profound sadness the Commissioner Board says a final goodbye to Sandra Turner-Barnes, an esteemed member of our community and a larger than life champion of equity and justice in Camden County.

“She was a visionary when it came to her contributions to the arts, culture and education with decades of work dedicated to building and leading the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission. Furthermore, her inspiring work with myriad other projects, like the Camden County Historical Society’s slave marker initiative, inspired thousands and now stands as a lasting legacy to Sandra.’’

South Jersey's 'Mother of Poetry'

Todd Evans of Willingboro is a playwright, poet and arts administrator in Burlington and Mercer counties, and was a close friend of Turner-Barnes, whom he considered a mentor.

Evans, whose father was founder of the Don Evans Players, credits Turner-Barnes with showing him the ropes as he began his poetry journey as a regular attendee of her Poetry in the Park series.

More: Willingboro Open Mic has sparked the growth of many performers in its 10 years

“She was my mentor, and she taught me everything about the poetry world and about poetry events, and about encouraging and motivating people, and she encouraged and motivated me,’’ said Evans, who hosts a longtime open mic series in Willingboro.

Equally inspiring to Evans’ was Turner-Barnes’ commitment to Camden County.

“I think that with Sandra, she bled Camden County. They say Eagles fans bleed green, she bled Camden County— that was her heart and soul. She loved people and she loved artists and performing.’’

Evans said he sat down and wrote a poem about his mentor, titled “Mother Poetry.’’

“Because that was who she was, Mother Poetry. She called all the poets her children, her babies, and she poured it into us like a mother.’’

Her daughter echoed this, saying since her mother's passing, so many writers have reached out and described themselves as The Cadillac Lady's "poetry sister,'' "poetry daughter,'' "poetry son ... ''

A lasting legacy

Cynthia Primas, owner of the IDEA (Institute for the Development of Education in the Arts) Center in Camden and a frequent collaborator with the late arts leader, called Turner-Barnes "my cultural sister," a mentor and close friend.

“I am profoundly saddened," Primas added. "The Camden Arts Community will never be the same without her.

“IDEA considered her our resident poet laureate,’’ Primas continued. “Her zest and zeal for life was undeniable to the vast number of people she influenced. She was a poet extraordinaire, a storyteller, an historian, a cultural icon and I will miss her dearly. Our work together has left an indelible mark that can never be erased.

“She would always say that ‘culture and arts has a home in Camden.’ Rest in peace, my Creative Queen.’’

More: Camden Lunchbox kiosk gets new life as a soup, sandwich and smoothie stop

Cappelli also spoke to Turner-Barnes’ lasting legacy and the void her passing will leave.

“Words cannot express the good works Sandra did over her career, nor can they do justice to her tireless commitment to our community,’’ he said. “We will miss her presence and take solace in the fact that her portfolio of projects will continue to live on in through the commission, her writing and the education of thousands of our youth over lifetime.

“In short, Sandra left large shoes for all of us to fill, a task that will take the combined efforts of our entire county.”

Funeral arrangements are still being scheduled. Interment will be beside her husband at Merion Memorial Park in Bela Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Tammy Paolino is Features Editor for the Atlantic South region of the USA Today Network. She’s an award-winning reporter and editor who loves to cover trends, diversity, the arts, food and drink. Reach her at tpaolino@gannett.com or 856-486-2477 or on Twitter @CP_TammyPaolino. Help support local journalism with a digital subscription.

Phaedra Trethan contributed to this report

This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: Poet and arts leader Sandra Turner-Barnes of Lawnside has died at 74

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