Annie Barry died on June 6, two days short of her 71st birthday. Yet on Nov. 25, when volunteers assemble to distribute hundreds of Thanksgiving meals to people throughout Lowndes County, Barry will be there — and not only in spirit.
“Miss Annie will still be in control of everything,” said Rhonda Sanders of the woman who has been her mentor, friend and collaborator for almost three decades.
Known as a sometimes fierce and forceful advocate for her Southside Columbus neighborhood, her active participation in local Democratic Party politics and her leadership as a member of the Townsend Community Center senior citizen group, Barry is best known for the annual Thanksgiving meal program that grew out of the Columbus Police Department’s annual Thanksgiving Turkey Drive, which began 25 years ago.
“That’s probably what she’ll be remembered for most, but she did a lot of other things, too,” said District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith, who grew up on Southside and has known Barry all his life. “She was very dedicated to her community. She loved people and loved serving others.”
Part of that service, the part that resonated beyond her Southside neighborhood, was the Thanksgiving meal program. What would have been the 25th anniversary of the event in 2020 was canceled because of COVID-19 precautions.
Disappointed, but undaunted, Barry turned her attention to 2021.
“That’s why I say she’ll be there with us,” said Sanders, a Lowndes County sheriff’s deputy and director for the Community Benefits Committee. CBC is a nonprofit that serves residents and supports members of local law enforcement. “She left me a letter about 2021. She had everything planned out, right down to the T-shirts. So Miss Annie will be there with us, not just in spirit but in every single thing we do that week for the Thanksgiving meal program.”
As was often the case, the meal program began when Barry saw a need left untended. Realizing the local Meals on Wheels program did not deliver meals on Thanksgiving Day, Barry, along with a few friends, gathered a few turkeys that had been donated to the CPD’s Thanksgiving Turkey Drive and prepared and delivered a hundred or so meals to those who were in the Meals on Wheels program.
Over the years, the program has grown. CPD and the CBC began providing volunteers to collect, prepare and deliver the meals. Columbus Municipal School District provided access to kitchens at various schools throughout the years, most recently at Stokes-Beard Elementary School.
In 2019, the program delivered 1,700 meals to people throughout the county.
Barry was there every step of the way, taking charge, developing the plans, directing every aspect of the program in her cheery, yet firm way.
“She was a very friendly person, very talkative,” said Sandra Lewis, who has known Barry since their childhood. “But she meant business, too. She wasn’t afraid to step up and speak out. She wanted to get things done.”
Barry applied that same determination to other efforts as well.
She played a leadership role in her neighborhood’s Night Out Against Crime, again organizing the school supplies giveaway that was part of the event. She served on the board of Prairie Opportunity, which provides assistance to needy families, and was a great advocate for youth and senior citizens programs at Townsend Community Center.
“She was really active with parks and recreation in Columbus, really any kind of program that helped kids,” Smith said. “If there was anything going on on the Southside that helped people, you could be sure Miss Annie was involved.”
For Sanders, that involvement went beyond volunteer programs.
“She was a mentor to me,” said Sanders. “When I first met her, I was just starting my law enforcement career at the Columbus Police Department. Even though I grew up in Columbus, I didn’t know many people on the Southside, and for a female officer, it was hard to do what I call ‘read the streets.’ I met her at a community meeting and she said she’d take me around, introduce me to her neighbors. Before long, I had met her friends, their husbands, their children and grandchildren, and so many other people on Southside. That was all because of Miss Annie.”
Shortly before her death, Barry called Sanders over for a visit. Barry was fighting her third bout with colon cancer and knew the odds were against her.
“If you know Miss Annie, you know one thing she loved was collecting Santa Claus (figurines),” Sanders recalled. “She had collected Black Santas from all her travels and some of them were pretty expensive. She told me she wanted to give them to me. I told her, ‘Oh, I couldn’t take them. I know how much you love them.’ But she insisted. She said she knew I would take care of them. So I’m pretty sure she knew the end was near. That’s why she gave me her Santa collection.”
Barry also gave Sanders the letter that detailed plans for the Thanksgiving Meal program she would not live to see.
“The Thanksgiving meal will go on,” Sanders said. “Miss Annie wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]