George Barnes has been helping Detroit see more clearly since 1975.
The founder, owner, and operator of Heritage Optical, and the first African American to open up an optical laboratory in the state of Michigan, is one of Detroit’s true business pioneers. But as someone who comes from a family steeped in a tireless work ethic, Barnes’ success isn’t necessarily all that surprising.
“I originally came out of New Orleans, Louisiana. My mom taught school in New Orleans until we came here. My dad was a chef, and a porter on the train. My uncle came and had an opportunity to work at Ford Motor Company,” said Barnes.
Barnes’ uncle later got a job for his brother, Barnes’ father, at Ford. After moving to Detroit to take the job, he worked there a year before sending for his family. George was seven years old at the time.
“So my dad worked at Ford Motor Company, and I used to look at him sometimes. He had his badge on. If it wasn’t on his cap when he went to church, it was on his lapel. He was a five dollar a day man, just proud. So the work ethic started early. First I bagged groceries at the Big Bear Super Market at Kercheval and Vernor, then I had a paper route. We just came up that way. So my dad worked at Ford, and now we do Ford’s business. So we’ve come full circle, and all I drive is Fords.”
To see how Barnes was able to get Ford’s business, it’s important to go back to the beginning, more than 50 years ago, when Barnes was considering another career altogether.
“I came out of school in 1961, and I had an optometrist that said that ‘You know, there’s not a …this was in ’62-63…there’s not a lot of blacks that are opticians. I didn’t even know what an optician was. And he said, you know, we have the three Os: ophthalmologist, optometry, and opticians.’ And so we went through what that is, and I said ‘That sounds pretty interesting’. Because I was thinking about electronics at that time. And so I was accepted into the school of opticianry. This was in ’64. I was in from ’64 to ’66, and I got drafted in the army.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad. After my basic training, they saw that I was in school, for an optician. They put me back in school for 18 months back in school in training on all the latest equipment and everything. I was the only African American at Fort Knox with my MOS. And in the two years I made my E5 [meaning he was a specialist] and they wanted me to re-enlist.”
Barnes decided against taking the offer, even though the army was offering him a bonus. Instead, Barnes chose to complete his schooling, after which he got his first 18-month internship in 1969 at Metropolitan Hospital, at the time located at Woodrow Wilson and Tuxedo. It was one year after he had left the service. He was the only African American there.
“In the meantime, our director was retiring and there was one other person who I thought was better credentialed than myself. But he didn’t want to come to the main hospital, so I’m thinking, lo and behold, because when the director was gone I did all the work. I did all the ordering, I took care of the clinics. So when I didn’t get the job and was passed over, people in the hospital said, ‘why don’t you go in business for yourself? So I did.”
Not many years later, thanks in large part to Detroit’s newly elected first African American mayor, Barnes was able to take his fledgling business to the next step – and it was a major step.
“So on July 14, in 1975, I opened up a facility, Heritage Optical, in Lafayette Park. Part of the reason was that Coleman Alexander Young, in that particular area they wanted to have minority entrepreneurs along with majority companies in that area. And prior to that, I was in the area doing minor repairs and free adjustments and asking if they would like to have that kind of service in this area. People were real receptive to that.”
When Barnes opened Heritage Optical, he became the first African American in the state of Michigan to open an optical lab. He later got licensed to administer vision programs, making him the only African American in the state of Michigan who had that capability.
“Needless to say, I said ‘Mr. Mayor, can I administer your vision program?’ At that time they had another program, Co-Op Optical which has since gone out of business. And that’s how Heritage Optical became one of the vision providers for Detroit. The mayor helped me to get part of the business for the Board of Education. Art Jefferson was the superintendent at the time. So those were two of our largest opportunities, and to this day we still have the Board of Education and the City of Detroit.”
In addition to Heritage Optical, Barnes has since started Heritage Vision Plans, which is the insurance arm of the business. Heritage Optical, which is the retail business, has three locations in Detroit; Campus Martius, 7 Mile and Livernois, and Chene and Jefferson. But Heritage Vision Plan is administered in all 50 states.
“So this is something that’s probably never been done in the city of Detroit; I’ve gone from Mayor Coleman Alexander Young, to Mayor Dennis Archer, to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and now Mayor Mike Duggan.”
And now it comes full circle back to Ford Motor Company, where Barnes’ father got his first job in the City of Detroit. It was 12 years ago when Heritage won the contract with Ford to administer their vision program for salaried employees as well as retirees. They also have contracts with Wayne County under Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, the Pistons Group, all three Detroit casinos, plus 31 of Dan Gilbert’s companies, including Bedrock Real Estate.
“I don’t think I’ll ever retire,” said Barnes. “I’m having a lot of fun.”