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Recollections As Told To Michele Kisthardt

Dr. Karen Barbee is glad to be back

The daughter of the county’s first African-American county commissioner talks about growing up here, leaving and now returning to the place she loves to live, work and raise a family.

“My family’s roots in Chatham County go back hundreds of years. I grew up in Bear Creek on Robert Thompson Road, named after my father’s father.

When I was a child, there was a train that would run past our house several times a day. My brother [Carl Thompson Jr.], my sister [Carla Mechelle Smith] and I, along with our cousins, would get in trouble with our grandmother for putting pennies or quarters on the track. Some of my cousins would hold on to the side of the train, ride it and then jump off. We had so much fun! My family has a lot of history with the chicken plants [in Siler City]. They provided so many jobs. There was the ever-present smell of chicken feed. That was everyday life for us.

My father [Reverend Carl E. Thompson Sr.] became the first African-American to be elected as a Chatham County Commissioner in 1978. He was serving as a commissioner the day the Chatham County Courthouse caught fire. The commissioners had a meeting that day. Meetings were typically held at the courthouse. However, on that particular day they met across the street. They watched the whole thing happen. What a relief and strange coincidence. He’s always been involved in politics…whether he was running for office or helping other people with their elections. My dad has served this community for decades, and he’s done it tirelessly. I’ve been afraid for his safety at times. He received death threats and face-offs in public places from people with opposing views. Through it all, he hasn’t changed his morals or his values.

My father and mother [Reverend Mechelle Thompson] are co-pastors of the Word of Life Christian Outreach Center on the Randolph and Chatham county line, a church they founded. Growing up, between politics and being a preacher’s kid, let’s just say, there wasn’t much room for error [laughter].

I lived in Guilford County for eight years and then my husband [Dr. Derrick Barbee] and I moved to Fuquay-Varina for a couple years, and now we’re in the Legacy at Jordan Lake with our 1-year-old son, Dylan. My husband is an instructor at Northwood High School and a dissertation coach.

It’s amazing how, when you’re a child, you want to leave an area so bad and experience other things. Then you end up falling in love with what you’re trying to get away from. I see it now under a different lens. My parents are still here and so are my brother and sister. It feels good to be back. I see positive changes happening now. This county is on the verge of a massive explosion in terms of population. The county we know will look very different five to ten years from now. Not bad or good, just different, with people coming from different states, different places.

As far as my profession, I created my business in 2015 in Holly Springs. I’d like to help turn the tide on providing stable mental health services to this county. Last November, I chose to open an office in Pittsboro to connect with the schools and stakeholders here. I have plans to open an office in Siler City.

Now that I’ve come back to Chatham County, I feel like I’m following in my dad’s footsteps in wanting to serve the community and doing what I can to get involved. People in this community know my dad. They often ask me if I’d ever consider politics. They know he’s committed and loyal, and I’m my father’s daughter. I have my family’s legacy to uphold. I’m waiting to see how it all unfolds.”


Karen Barbee, EdD, LPC, LCASA, NCC, CSOTS, founded Renaissance Wellness Services, LLC in 2015. She currently has offices in Holly Springs and at 288 East Street, Suite 1001-F7, in Pittsboro.

Read the original article in the Summer 2017 Issue:

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Chatham Magazine is a bi-monthly publication that seeks to capture the beauty, charm and unique character within Chatham County.


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