Reverend Willie Taplin Barrow was a powerhouse. She stood only 4’11”, but she was a giant. She was a fighter, thus her title “The Little Warrior.” Barrow fought injustice and spoke for equality on all fronts — race, women, and gays.
A church family raised her in Burton, Texas, where she was born and grew up. At the age of 12, Willie experienced racism. The White students rode the bus to school while the Black students walked. She asked why. She confronted the injustice. It was the beginning of her life’s work.
She started her career as a welder, the job on which she met her husband Honey Barrow, who preceded her in death. They were married for 50 years and had a son, Keith, who died of AIDS.
All of my adult life, there has been Rev. Willie T. Barrow. I met her at the age of 17, when I volunteered for what was then Operation Breadbasket located on 47th Street and Rev. Jesse Jackson assigned me to work with Rev. Barrow.
At that time she was boycotting and picketing grocery stores — Red Rooster, A&P and National. Red Rooster was selling spoiled meat and second-rate food to Black consumers. I began to help with logistics of the picketers. I took the phone reports from the picketers and assigned the picketers to the lines. I was learning first hand Organizing 101 from a pro.
For a while I was her right hand and I was watching, listening, and learning all the way. She went into meetings with a game plan. She argued her point. She was usually the only woman in the room, but it didn’t matter. She would tell the men to be quiet and listen to her.
Eventually, the grocery stores shut down and eventually left the community. The protest was against poor food, and about putting Black manufactured products on the shelf and hiring and contracting with African-American businesses. I saw results come about from the boycotts.
I saw the feminist movement come to her seeking advice. Rev. Barrow worked with women at the highest levels of the world. She was at the table with the best of them and traveled the world addressing women rights, civil rights, and world peace. I’m proud to say that I wrote some of her speeches.
Her methods were always in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, rooted in non-violence. She was always nice and kind, but also forceful and focused. She was a wonderful negotiator who would not move off her point.
Her energy eventually turned to politics. Her famous speech when Harold Washington was running for mayor was that she wanted all the Black women in Chicago to vote for Harold. With that vote alone, she said, Harold would win. She organized Black women to make that so.
A Different Breed of Woman
Her musician son Keith came home from New York with an unusual illness — he had AIDS and at the time no one knew what it was and most were afraid of it.
I went to the hospital with her often to visit Keith. She changed. Her faith deepened. When he passed away, she became a strong advocate for research on this horrible disease, but she never became bitter. She grew. She embraced everybody in a different way. She began to pay more attention to people. She had 100 godchildren and became a mother figure to many. Young people gravitated to her.
Willie taught by example. Her office space was usually a mess, but she knew where everything was. She was on the phone taking calls on behalf of Jesse. She was running the organization, no matter who was in charge. Willie worked with Rev. Jackson in multiple capacities for 50 years.
When Rev. Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, she was on the road with him, organizing churches, communities, and women. Everyone loved her. She was Jesse’s feet on the ground and she delivered.
She was another breed of woman. Willie had energy galore. Always ready for action. But she encouraged women to not be too busy for a family life, and often late in the evenings, she would tell women to go home and take of their husbands and children. I never saw her tire.
When I started N’DIGO, I wanted her support. She listened and asked a lot of questions. She finally said, I am retiring in November; will you be ready to publish then? I said I have to get my advertising together. She said, I’ll help. Let’s make a list of potential advertisers.
She was the first cover story of N’DIGO, in our premier issue of December 1989. At her retirement party at a downtown Chicago hotel, we introduced N’DIGO to the public for the first time by having it on every seat in the room. She took me by the hand and made sure everyone knew I was publishing a newspaper. Advertising came from that and the paper was introduced.
Willie lived a long and beautiful life of 90 years. She leaves a rich legacy. She taught five generations to fight for what is right. She taught us how to organize. She taught women how to have a seat at the table as a woman and as an African American.
Her saying, “We are not divided as much as we are disconnected,” still rings true. She made us strong. We weep as we remember life lessons learned from her. It was a privilege to know her.