Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr. was born Friday morning, July 15, 1938 in Durham, North Carolina during the Jim Crow era. He lived with his parents and younger brother in what was then-called “The Bottom,” a community near the Hayti District of the city. His father, Ernest E. Barnes, Sr. (1899 – 1966) worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company in Durham. His mother, Fannie Mae Geer (1905 – 2004) oversaw the household staff for a prominent Durham attorney and Board of Education member, Frank L. Fuller, Jr.
On days when Fannie allowed “June” (Barnes’ nickname to family and childhood friends) to accompany her to work, Mr. Fuller encouraged him to peruse art books and listen to classical music. By the time Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the works of such masters as Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. When he entered junior high, he could appreciate, as well as decode, many of the cherished masterpieces within the walls of mainstream museums – although it would be many more years before he was allowed entrance because of segregation.
A self-described chubby and unathletic child, Barnes was taunted and bullied by classmates. He continually sought refuge in his sketchbooks, finding the less-traveled parts of campus away from the other students. One day Ernest was drawing in his notebook in a quiet area of the school. He was discovered hiding there by the masonry teacher Tommy Tucker, who was also the weightlifting coach and a former athlete. Tucker was intrigued with Barnes’ drawings so he asked the aspiring artist about his grades and goals. Tucker shared his own experience of how bodybuilding improved his strength and outlook on life. That encounter would begin Barnes’ discipline and dedication that would permeate his life. By his senior year at Hillside High School, Barnes became the captain of the football team and state champion in the shot put.