Cora De Sha Barnett (1885-1971), Louisville social worker and musician

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This biosketch was written by Dr. Carol Mattingly, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Louisville. For her full project on “African American Women and Suffrage in Louisville,” visit https://arcg.is/1O8muW.


Cora De Sha was born in Cynthiana, Kentucky, but by 1900 when she was about fifteen, she and her mother, Caroline Garnett, had moved to Louisville, where they both worked as domestic servants in the household of George L Bacon, a fire agent married with two children. By the 1940 census, Cora Barnett, the young domestic, had completed four years of college, emblematic of many women with backgrounds of domestic service who rose socially and economically through higher education.

Cora De Sha used various names. On her daughter’s death certificate (1906), she lists her birth name as Cora D. Barnett. On her son’s death record (1914), she gives her birth name as Cora Desha. She used De Sha on her marriage license, and she named her daughter Cora De Sha Barnett. Perhaps her father (Desha) died and her mother remarried (Garnett), or perhaps De Sha was not her birth name but a change from one given during slavery, as the Deshas were large slaveholders in the Cynthiana area, where she was born. Changing the spelling as she did distances her from that history. Her birthdate is given variously as 1873, 1880, and 1885 on official documents. The image below is snipped from a newspaper article featuring the West End Woman’s Republican League of Louisville – probably in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

In 1931 Barnett planned to attend the National Conference of Social Workers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was working with the Family Service Organization and Juvenile Court as a social worker at the time. She wrote a letter to the West Hotel there (using Juvenile Court stationery) to reserve a room. When she arrived in Minneapolis and attempted to check in, she was denied accommodation. She showed the manager the confirmation letter from the hotel she had received, and still was refused. The newspaper article describing the incident quoted the manager as stating: “There must be some mistake, I am very sorry we cannot accommodate you. The person who wrote this letter is not in at present. We do not know when you may expect him in. We can send you to a nice, place, however, among your own people where you will be comfortable.” The Executive Secretary of the Urban League stepped in afterwards to pressure the Minneapolis hotel to stop its segregationist practices.

Although Cora Barnett was involved in social services most of her life, she was also valued for her musical talents. In 1910, when the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs met In Louisville, Barnett took charge of music, a major part of the conference. She was also a member of the Girls’ Sextet at Louisville Municipal College. She sang at funerals and at charity events in Boston, New York, and other major cities, garnering praise for her voice. In 1934 she sang on the radio, a relatively new feature in many homes. The Indianapolis Freeman called her “That most beautiful singer.” Her entire family seems to have been musically talented. Her daughter was studying music at Fisk University when she died prematurely in 1923 at the age of 17. Her son and husband were lifelong choir members and often sang with her at charity events.

Cora De Sha married David W. Barnett, a letter carrier. The couple had three surviving children. Cora’s mother, Caroline Garnett, was a member of the household. The couple’s son, David Jr., became principal at Central High School; he preceded De Sha Barnett in death at the age of 63, five years after his father. These family members are buried in Eastern Cemetery. Late in life Cora Barnett moved to Norwalk, Connecticut to be near her surviving daughter, Yolanda Williams. Cora Barnett died in 1971 at the age of 86. Her body was cremated and ashes placed in the family plot at Eastern Cemetery.

***Sources***

  • American Baptist: 9 December 1904.
  • [Louisville] Courier-Journal: I3 May 1908; 27 May 1909; 13 July 1910; 16 August 1933; 19 August 1934; 3 November 1935; 1 October 1961; 4 November 1970; 4 April 1972.
  • [Indianapolis] Freeman: 6 August 1910.
  • Louisville Leader: 26 February 1921; 1 April 1922; 29 April 1922; 11 April 1931; 6 March 1948; 1 October 1861; 4 November 1970.
  • "Minneapolis Hotel Bars Prominent Social Worker," The Northwest (Seattle, Wash.) Enterprise (2 July 1931): 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87093377/1931-07-02/ed-1/seq-6/
  • U. S. Census: 1880, 1900-1970.
  • Williams, Lillian Serece, ed. Records of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, 1895-1992. Bethesda, MD. University Publications of America, 1995. Part 1, Reel 1: frame 00357.