Ernest Barnes Jr. was born in 1938 during the Jim Crow era in “the bottom” community of Durham, North Carolina, near the Hayti District of the city. He had a younger brother, James (b. 1942), as well as a half-brother, Benjamin B. Rogers Jr. (1920–1970). Ernest Jr. was nicknamed “June”. His father, Ernest E. Barnes Sr. ( –1966), worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company. His mother, Fannie Mae Geer (1905–2004), oversaw the household staff for a prominent Durham attorney and local Board of Education member, Frank L. Fuller Jr.
On days when Fannie allowed “June” (Barnes’ nickname to family and childhood friends) to accompany her to work, Mr. Fuller encouraged him to peruse the art books and listen to classical music. The young Ernest was intrigued and captivated by the works of master artists. By the time Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the works of such masters as Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. When he entered junior high school, he could appreciate, as well as decode, many of the cherished masterpieces within the walls of mainstream museums – although it would be many more years before he was allowed entrance because of segregation.
Barnes credits his college art instructor Ed Wilson for laying the foundation for his development as an artist. Wilson was a sculptor who instructed Barnes to paint from his own life experiences. “He made me conscious of the fact that the artist who is useful to America is one who studies his own life and records it through the medium of art, manners, and customs of his own experiences.”
Throughout the Good Times television series (1974–79) most of the paintings by the character J.J. are works by Ernie Barnes. However, a few images, including “Black Jesus” in the first season (1974), were not painted by Barnes. The Sugar Shack made its debut on the show’s fourth season (1976–77) during the opening and closing credits. In the fifth season (1977–78) The Sugar Shack was only used in the closing credits for five early episodes during that season. In the sixth season (1978–79), The Sugar Shack was only used in opening credits for the first eight episodes and in the closing credits for five early episodes during that season. In the fifth and sixth seasons (1977–79), The Sugar Shack appears in the background of the Evans family apartment. Barnes had a bit part on two episodes of Good Times: The Houseguest (February 18, 1975) and Sweet Daddy Williams (January 20, 1976).
Barnes’ artwork was also used on many television series, including Columbo, The White Shadow, Dream On, The Hughleys, The Wayans Bros., Wife Swap, and Soul Food, and in the movies Drumline and Boyz n the Hood. Barnes passed away on Monday evening, April 27, 2009 at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, California from myeloid leukemia. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in two places: at his hometown Durham, North Carolina, near the site of where his family home once stood, and at the beach in Carmel, California, one of his favorite cities. Legend.