February is Low Vision Awareness Month, but it is much better known as Black History Month. That got me thinking. I’ve been an optician for more than three decades in the New York metropolitan area, and I know very few African-American opticians. I did some research and found that according to Data USA 2016, although they comprise the second highest race or ethnicity, African Americans represent only 8.46 percent of opticians. In spite of their small number, I set out to find an outstanding African-American member of our field. Here is one remarkable story.
George Barnes Jr., having just graduated from high school in Detroit in 1961 and contemplating a career in electronics, was having his annual eye exam. His optometrist mentioned that there were few black opticians. When the optometrist explained what opticians did, Barnes was intrigued. A short while later, American Optical’s local opticianry program accepted the young Barnes, the only African-American student. Two years into the program, he was drafted, but Barnes didn’t let the interruption stop him. Immediately after his discharge, he completed his schooling. He landed an internship and then a staff optician position at Metropolitan Hospital. Once again, he was the only African American.
Even though Barnes created a patient following, took care of the clinics and ordered all materials, he was passed over for promotions. Colleagues recognized his expertise and encouraged Barnes to go into business for himself. On July 14, 1975, he opened Heritage Optical in Lafayette Park, Detroit, becoming the first African American in Michigan to open an optical shop. He built his business on word of mouth and building relationships in the community with free eyewear adjustments and minor repairs. He now has three locations in Detroit offering eye exams as well as eyewear.
But that wasn’t enough for Barnes. In 1991, he founded Heritage Vision Plans managed vision care and scored another “first.” Barnes was the first African American in Michigan licensed to administer vision plans and become a Tier I Healthcare Vision Supplier to service Ford Motor Company. In 2006, Heritage Vision Plans became a separate business and currently has a network of 20,000 locations in all 50 states. Clients include Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies.
Barnes gives back to the Detroit community, too. Barnes is involved with a youth mentoring program and makes sure the program’s young people receive eye exams and glasses at no charge. If that weren’t enough, he has also provided college scholarships to students in need. Well aware of the obstacles he had to overcome to achieve his success, Barnes is removing obstacles for others through the gifts of sight and financial assistance for education. Barnes has set a high bar for all opticians.