Business owner Abra Barnes keeps ‘Community First’ in life and in business

By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Abra Barnes is the president and broker of Barnes and Associates Realtors, the largest black-owned-and-operated real estate brokerage firm in Alabama. (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

Working under her father, the late Anthony L. Barnes, taught Abra Barnes some valuable lessons.

“He would always tell me, ‘I ain’t telling you nothing. … You have to learn by mistake, trial and error. It’s gonna make you stronger.’ And it did,” she said. “I figure everything out without asking questions. [My father] was a stern businessman, and everybody called him the gentle teddy bear. We were together so much every day. It was great. … My relationship with God and my daddy in my ear pushing me are the things that get me through all the time.”

Those lessons came in handy for the 38-year-old president and broker of Barnes and Associates Realtors. The company, founded by Barnes’s father in 1989, is the largest black-owned-and-operated real estate brokerage firm in Alabama.

“I miss him a lot, but he taught me everything I know about business,” said Barnes, who worked with her father for 15 years before he passed away in 2015. “It was tough when I lost my daddy, but even now I can always hear [him] in my ear telling me to keep going and keep pushing, so that’s what I do. He was a very successful and respected man, even to this day.”

Since becoming president of the company in January 2017, Barnes has doubled the number of agents on her team, which now totals 33. She added a property-management division and Urban Blessings, an initiative that gives back to the community. And in January, the company opened its event venue, Avondale Gallery and Loft.

This month, Barnes and Associates will open an Alabama-state-licensed full real estate school, which will specialize in pre-license, post-license, and continuing-education courses for prospective and current real estate agents.

“Community First”

The company’s motto is “Community First”—and it shows. The company has worked with the city of Birmingham, as well as several nonprofits and developers that build and remodel houses in the inner city for low- to moderate-income buyers.

“We not only assist with the sales and marketing of the property but also go into the communities and teach financial literacy, do credit counseling, and offer home-ownership seminars,” Barnes said. “Through our volunteer organization, Urban Blessings, we go into communities and do light renovations; assist with housing bills; feed senior, homeless, and low-income citizens in food deserts; provide clothing and toiletries to those in need; and mentor at risk children.”

Well-Rounded

Barnes grew up in the Kingston community, where she lived with her parents, Anita and Anthony Barnes, and her older sisters, Anthonita and Anika.  “My mother ensured that all of her girls were well-rounded and involved in the community,” said Barnes, who volunteered at a local nursing home on a monthly basis, as well as with the Red Cross and West Alabama Aids Outreach.

Her mother worked as a teacher and for the telephone company, and her father worked as a carpenter and a mailman. Barnes recalled not having much, but she and her sisters never knew it.

“My mama and daddy always made us feel like we had a lot,” she said. “I remember when we got good grades, once a month my mom would treat us to a McDonald’s meal. That’s how she would reward us. It’s funny now, but it was a big deal back then.”

Her father started the real estate business because he was tired of seeing his family struggle, she said: “I remember riding around in the back seat [of our family car when I was 8], accompanying my daddy when he went on appointments to show houses. I hated houses back then because I got tired of seeing them.”

Celebrity Stylist

Barnes wanted to become a fashion designer or buyer and majored in marketing and fashion merchandising when she attended the University of Alabama. She completed her undergraduate degree in three years and took a job right after college as a buyer for Neiman Marcus in Texas.

She also was a celebrity stylist and personal shopper who met or worked with many luminaries, including Bishop T.D. Jakes, musician Kirk Franklin, singer-songwriter Lionel Richie, former Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith.

In Texas, Barnes felt she had finally cut ties with the real estate business, but she eventually returned home to help her father.

“My daddy got sick, … so in 2001 I decided to leave Texas and come home to help,” she said. “I tried to quit several times, and he even tried to fire me a few times! I never thought I wanted to do it at first, but [my dad] asked me to come. I feel like it was the best decision I could have ever made.”

Civil Rights Icons

Barnes has been surrounded by powerful men throughout her life. In addition to her father, her grandfathers, Abraham Lincoln Woods and Alex Barnes, were huge influences. Woods was a renowned civil rights activist in Birmingham and across the South who traveled with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Barnes is named after Woods.

“Abraham means ‘leader,’ so everybody said my name fits me. I was named after my other grandfather, Alex, too: he was one of the hardest workers anybody knew,” she said. “Those two were very instrumental in my life. …  I’ve always been a leader and different from everybody else. I was active and traveled with the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC] since I was 5.”

Staying the Course

Having those role models and her dad’s guidance have helped Barnes as a young woman realtor in a male-dominated society and particularly when the business had to rebound from the 2009 market crash.

“I saw a lot of my colleagues go out of business. In fact, we almost went out of business several times and did everything in our power to keep our doors open,” she said. “At that time, I thought about giving up and God told me, ‘No, you need to stay the course. Things will get better.’ It was a humbling experience, and it taught me to never take anything for granted and to live each day to the fullest. [It also] taught me to not put all my eggs in one basket and to have multiple sources of income.”

That’s why Barnes and Associates offers so many services including the soon-to-be opened real estate school.

“We do a lot of other things because I don’t want us to be focused on one thing and get stuck again,” she said. “[Those tough times] taught me to have multiple sources of income, and all of mine are in real estate.”

Barnes is happy that the business is diversified.

“I don’t think I would’ve been able to help as many people if I would’ve stayed on the course I was on,” she said. “It’s just a blessing to be a blessing.”

Updated at 11:03 a.m. on 6/7/2018 to correct that Barnes & Associates is not the first real estate school in Birmingham.