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Barbara B. Abernathy Ross, longtime Carver community activist, dies at 77

Free Press staff report | 1/11/2019, 6 a.m.
When Virginia Commonwealth University sought to expand its campus north of Broad Street in the 1990s, the university hit a ...
Barbara B. Abernathy Ross

When Virginia Commonwealth University sought to expand its campus north of Broad Street in the 1990s, the university hit a stonewall — civic activist Barbara Beatrice Abernathy Ross.

As president of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League, or CACIL, Ms. Abernathy, as she was known in the community, fought against VCU’s plans to replace much of the neighborhood.

She forged a groundbreaking partnership with the university that limited its future development in the neighborhood. With help from Tim Kaine, then the community’s representative on Richmond City Council and now a U.S. senator, she carved out an agreement with Eugene P. Trani and Grace Harris, VCU’s president and provost at the time, to create the Carver-VCU Partnership that ensured preservation of the neighborhood that is loosely bounded by Belvidere, Lombardy and Broad streets and Interstate 95.

For 11 years Ms. Abernathy co-chaired the partnership that brought VCU faculty and staff to work with residents and, according to a VCU study, resulted in efforts to improve health care, increase neighborhood safety, offer programs for youths and adults and create better housing.

The partnership resulted in VCU creating a Division of Community Engagement and a council that includes representatives from neighborhoods adjacent to the university to enable VCU and residents to work together.

Ms. Abernathy’s impact as a civic leader is being remembered following her death on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. She was 77.

Family and friends paid tribute to her work on behalf of the Carver community on Friday, Dec. 28, at Moore Street Missionary Baptist Church, where she served as church clerk.

Change also came as Ms. Abernathy worked with Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to redevelop several blighted blocks in Carver. Other people began investing in the homes, and new apartments also went up, increasing property values.

“We can look around and see what she has done,” said Jerome Legions Jr., current president of the civic league. “Her work for community betterment inspired me to make my home here. Today, we seek to continue the vision she laid out.”

Ms. Abernathy, who worked for nearly three decades for Reynolds Metals, grew up in Carver and made her home there.

After watching the neighborhood decline and older homes being converted into rooming houses, she became involved. She started in the early 1980s, first in the West of Belvidere Civic Association and then with CACIL.

She served as president for 14 years before stepping down in 2007, but remained active, Mr. Legions said. “I miss being able to talk with her.”

“She was the quintessential civic activist,” according to Sen. Kaine. “She was so passionate about Carver and a tough fighter for what was good and against what was harmful to her beloved community.

“Whether in meetings of the Carver community in the basement of Moore Street Baptist Church, sitting in her living room on Marshall Street or around a conference table at City Hall, she displayed a steely resolve that couldn’t hide her warm heart,” Sen. Kaine stated. “I learned so much from her.”

Charleen Baylor, a former president of CACIL and current vice president, said Ms. Abernathy never took no for an answer. If she didn’t like the answer from local representatives, she would take the issue to General Assembly representatives, members of Congress and federal agencies.

“Carver is a stronger community and Richmond a better city because of Barbara,” Ms. Baylor stated.

Describing her as a role model, Ms. Baylor noted that Ms. Abernathy’s willingness to battle for Carver’s betterment “is representative of the fight we all should be involved in to make our neighborhoods and our city a great place.”

Ms. Abernathy’s legacy includes a small park on Catherine Street that she worked with the city to create and ensured was named for Madeline T. Peters and Helen M. Smith, both of whom are now deceased, who served as her mentors in civic action.

Survivors include two sisters, Shelia Abernathy and Kathenia Abernathy.