The area lost one of its longest serving champions of racial equality and a bridge to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s with the death Saturday of Norman Bartleson.
Bartleson, 75, of Danville had been president of the Danville-Boyle County chapter of the NAACP since the early 1970s and was the highest ranking of the seven statewide vice presidents of the Kentucky NAACP. He died after a prolonged illness.
Bartleson was born Nov. 6, 1936, in Harrodsburg and graduated from Westside High School in Harrodsburg. After moving to Danville, he was a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service for 33 years.
Agnes Bartelson said her husband of 55 years — the couple would have celebrated their 56th anniversary on Christmas Day — cared deeply about the community and his church, First Baptist, Second and Walnut streets, where he was a trustee, taught men’s Bible study and sang in the men’s chorus. Bartleson was also on the local Human Rights Board and was past head of the Danville-Boyle County Recreation Department, where he also worked for years as an umpire for youth sporting events.
The man who likely will move into Bartleson’s role as local NAACP president, Marvin Swann, grew up with Bartleson as his biggest role model. Swann, the group’s current vice president, who handled most of the master of ceremonies duties at last month’s NAACP banquet, was emotional when describing the role Bartleson played in his life.
“Above all, he’s probably become my best friend, and I’m going to miss him,” Swann said, noting the travels he and Bartleson took to state and national conventions. Swann, a high school student when he met Bartleson in the early 1970s, became even closer to his mentor when he graduated from college and got involved with the NAACP.
“He’s taught me how to be patient, to do the research before I speak on something. He’s really been training me all along for this time.”
Kentucky NAACP President William Cofield said the state has lost an important figure.
“I knew Norman for more than 20 years, and he was both a wonderful person and a tremendous supporter of the NAACP,” Cofield said. “We are going to miss him. He loved that community, and he was NAACP inside and out.”
Former Danville city manager and lifetime NAACP member Paul Stansbury got to know Bartleson soon after arriving in Danville, while working on an interim basis at city hall. He said Bartleson was a good listener who was adept at effecting change within the system, recalling a time when Bartleson came to city hall with concerns about gates being locked at Jackson Park.
Stansbury said he and Bartleson, along with others, convened regularly to talk about ways the city could increase diversity among its workforce, which led directly to several African-Americans joining the staff.
“This community has lost one of its very fine leaders,” Stansbury said. “I think you have to look at Norman beyond just his role with the NAACP here locally. He was a leader in the city, the region, the state and beyond.”
James Hunn, secretary of the local NAACP chapter, also knew Bartleson from church and their kids coming up together.
“He set an example for others to follow,” Hunn said. “He always encouraged people to become involved, whether it be NAACP or other things.”
The problems the NAACP tried to tackle in recent years were ones Bartleson had long seen born out and sought to remedy close to home, including access to health care and education. However, it was voting equality, something he remembered as a disputed right, that remained a major passion.
“He would be out right now getting people registered to vote,” Swann said. “He lived at a time when voting wasn’t a given. He didn’t take it lightly, and he wanted everyone to exercise that American right no matter what party they voted for.”
The Bartlesons have three daughters, Larita (Basil) Smotherman of Indianapolis, Delphine (Rickie) Chenault of Atlanta, and Bonita Bartleson of Danville and Lexington; and three grandchildren.
Visitation will be 4-6:30 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church, Second and Walnut streets, with a celebration of life service to follow at 7 p.m. at the church. Burial will be 11 a.m. Friday in Maple Grove Cemetery in Mercer County.
Smith-Jackson Funeral Home in Danville is in charge of arrangements.