Frank Barham's final act

Atlanta musician and disability activist died fulfilling his mission

Even in tragedy, Frank Barham found a way to overcome the odds. It's the story of his life.

The 59-year-old Atlanta harmonica player and disability activist died last Wednesday, May 20, along with well-known Atlanta arts advocate and PR/marketing specialist Margaret Kargbo. They were traveling to Savannah, with van driver Carrie Beth Johnson of Villa Rica, while Barham logged 30 miles per day via wheelchair for his campaign to raise money and awareness for people with disabilities. Kargbo was documenting the journey from the van following Barham when a gas tanker hit them from behind. Johnson, the lone survivor of the three, remains in a burn center in Augusta.

Timed in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Wheel 2 Live trip retraced the route of Gen. William Sherman's "March to the Sea" during the Civil War. Barham stopped along the way, meeting many people who'd heard about what he was doing. There were a few days where he received a police escort after sharing his story and Wheel 2 Live mission. People also contributed to the campaign and offered lunch to the team. He was scheduled to perform a grand finale concert in Savannah, and a surprise Welcome Home Jam Session was being planned in Atlanta this week in his honor.

"Everyone was in good spirits the morning we came together to wish Frank well as he began his 302-mile roll," says City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who saw Barham, Kargbo, and Johnson off when they departed Atlanta on May 11 from the Center for Civil and Human Rights. "Frank was very focused that morning. I could tell that he had been training himself physically, mentally, and emotionally for what he was about to undertake. He mentioned that he was dedicating the ride to his father."

In fact, his father was a huge part of Barham's motivation to help the disabled in life. New Mobility, a magazine for active wheelchair users, recounted why in a 2013 profile on Barham. When he was 17, Barham was playing around with his father and some friends near a swimming pool. "In the spirit of fun," profiler Susan Hawkins writes, "Barham tossed his father in the pool, never imagining it would break his father's neck, but it did." The accident left his father a quadriparetic, dependent on a wheelchair to get around.

Despite his father's forgiveness, Barham carried the weight of his father's condition for the next eight years until another accident left him disabled, too. While coming home from a party one night, the police tried to pull him over. "Instead of stopping, I took off, lost control of the car and crashed. I broke everything in my upper body. Everything," he told Hawkins.

Music renewed Barham's will to live. He'd played trumpet since high school and loved jazz, Southern rock, and blues. After the accident, he would expand his repertoire to include percussion and the chromatic harmonica. He developed a love for West African folk music and Afro-Brazilian rhythms, which led to the creation of his band Frank Barham and Brazilian Fusion.

"Frank was a guy who overcame a handful of rough things in his life," says Khari Cabral Simmons, who played bass for him and eventually produced his EP Levitating. Simmons also witnessed Barham's personal evolution over the course of the 22 years he knew him. "He was certainly a transformed man," he says.

By the time Barham married Adriana Barham 19 years ago, a purpose-filled, professional musician and burgeoning activist had replaced the guilt-ridden young man. When they met in a Cajun restaurant in Little Five Points in 1996, Adriana recalls being captivated by the sound of his voice and the confidence he projected, as if he was, "sitting on a throne instead of a wheelchair," she says.

Elliott Street Pub owner Mike Jakob echoes those sentiments. "He was a real hip guy," says Jakob, who came to know Barham over the last four years as he began playing with Kebbi Williams and the Wolfpack at Elliott Street. "He was a huge inspiration, no matter what," Jakob says. "He did whatever it took to get it done — whether it was wheeling from here to Savannah, or making an effort to get up on his crutches so he could walk with his braces, or training for something, or practicing a new style of music. It didn't matter, man. Frank always made it happen."

That same drive encouraged Barham to undertake what would become his last mission. He planned to raise $12,000 through Wheel 2 Live to purchase wheelchairs for the less fortunate with disabilities.

"He used to say all the time that the chair he had really made a huge difference in his life and he wanted to use what he was doing to help others," Simmons says.

While family and friends of Barham and Kargbo have had a hard time grasping the reality of their tragic deaths, they take some solace in knowing their final act was in service to others. They even surpassed the crowdfunding goal for the Wheel 2 Live campaign with time to spare.

"Frank is one of the most sincere people I ever met," says Adriana, who still refers to him in the present tense. "If he says he is going to do it, he does it."

An Atlanta memorial service for Margaret Kargbo is being planned. Look for more details in next week's remembrance on the life and work of Kargbo.

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