Althemese Pemberton Barnes, 80

Althemese Pemberton Barnes is a Tallahassee trailblazer. Born in Tallahassee, the sixth child of nine children, she learned early on that each person had an important story to tell. Her parents, Mose and Mary, would take their children to visit different relatives “who lived in the country” each weekend. Althemese would sit quietly and soak up the stories of her elders. These personal histories would be the foundation for her passion later in life.

Her parents put each of their children through college and Althemese earned a bachelor’s degree in music education followed by a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. Before retiring from her 30- year career with the Departments of Education and Labor, she began thinking about the stories she remembered listening to as a young girl. She understood that when a person dies, you lose a whole library. She wanted to “make sure people are not forgotten.”

In 1996, Althemese founded the John G. Riley Museum where she served as Executive Director for 17 years. Her mission was “preserving and documenting the stories of her elders.” She started by recording conversations with her own family members and her mother’s friends with a camcorder. She even helped launch the career of local artist Eluster Richardson when she tasked him with creating some artwork to hang on the empty walls of the Riley House. In 1997, she established the African American Heritage Preservation Network, a statewide professional museum association, a resource for those in other areas interested in preserving African-American history.

Althemese’s preservation work got the attention of President Obama who appointed her to serve on the board of the Institute of Museum & Library Services in 2012. In 2022, the City of Tallahassee honored her with the Althemese Pemberton Barnes Park recognizing her for the preservation work of Smokey Hollow, Frenchtown, Greenwood Cemetery, the United States Colored Troops, and countless other projects.

Althemese has accomplished so much and won many accolades, honors, and appointments and the respect from leaders locally and nationally. Her work has led hundreds of younger people to pursue careers in preserving African-American history. And she understands that this work “takes togetherness.” When asked if she had anything left on her bucket list, she laughed and said “I do but I know I won’t get to it.”

Althemese and Calvin have one daughter, Denise who has given them two beautiful granddaughters, Brianna and Adrianna. And one month ago, Brianna gave them a great grandson, Solar Antonio, who as his name suggests, is a ray of sunshine and a blessing. Four generations of Pemberton-Barnes’!

Althemese shared an African proverb that states “You choose a young person because they walk faster but the elderly know the path.” It’s safe to say that Althemese has been treading that path since she could walk.