James Barber, former legislator

Posted: December 28, 2001

James David Barber, 80, a barber and nine-term state representative from West Philadelphia during the 1970s and 1980s who chaired the powerful House Health and Welfare Committee, died Sunday at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington.

Mr. Barber, a native of Columbia, S.C., moved to Philadelphia as a teenager with his family and graduated from Overbrook High. He worked as a machinist at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and later opened a restaurant and three barber shops in West Philadelphia.

In 1947, he met and married Rebecca Nedab. She died in 1998.

Mr. Barber started his political career as a Democratic committeeman in 1947. In 1968, he won his first term as state representative for the 190th District, running as an anti-machine candidate. He held the seat until 1986, when he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Vincent Hughes.

Mr. Barber became the first chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, after a bitterly contested internal election, in 1972.

The caucus, he said in 1974, was designed to get black ward leaders and black elected officials together so they could "get a piece of the political pie instead of the crumbs" he felt they had been getting. As chair of a key House committee, he became one of the most powerful black politicians in the state.

But he always tried to present himself as a man in touch with the working people of his district. Criticized during a feisty 1982 primary as being out of touch with voters because he had no official office, Mr. Barber brushed the charge aside, saying his barber shop at 4085 Lancaster Ave. was the best way to keep in contact with his constituents.

"I could open a fancy office and wear a suit," he said at the time, but added that fewer people would come to see him. "They know Jim Barber, the barber, and they know where to find me."

Mr. Barber professed to have little concern about losing an election. "When you serve the people, you don't have too much worrying to do. I continue to cut hair, where I can have a rapport with people. I haven't got above cutting hair."

During his political career, Mr. Barber served on a governor's task force for special-needs children and on the prison board. He also enjoyed horse racing and playing cards.

"He had a great sense of humor and strong determination," said his daughter, Diane Hannah, of Newark, Del. "My father had a very strong will to the end."

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Barber is survived by two grandsons and two nephews.

A viewing will be held tomorrow at 9 a.m., with funeral services at 11, at the White Rock Baptist Church, 53d and Chestnut Streets, West Philadelphia. Burial will be in Fernwood Cemetery.

James M. O'Neill's e-mail address is joneill@phillynews.com.

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