A car wreck in 1980 left Frank Barham a paraplegic, restricting him to a wheelchair at the age of 24.
He was robbed of the use of his legs, but not his passion. It was his music and his desire to help others with disabilities that led the 59-year-old Barham on his final journey. The Atlanta musician, who played the chromatic harmonica, died in southeast Georgia on Wednesday afternoon. And once again, it was a wreck to blame.
Barham wasn’t behind the wheel, but was using his wheels, his wheelchair, to prove that his disability wouldn’t stop him. Through his charity, Barham raised money to provide wheelchairs for those who couldn’t afford them, and he was on a 302-mile journey to make that happen when he was killed.
Barham was on a mission to travel 30 miles a day in his wheelchair to complete the trip from Atlanta to Savannah, a symbolic path taken by Gen. William T. Sherman during the Civil War. A website, www.wheel2live.net, explained why Barham chose his destination. Margaret Kargbo, 36, an Atlanta arts activist and public relations professional, and another supporter and photographer, Carrie Johnson, 34, of Villa Rica, accompanied him on the trip.
“In 2015, Frank’s roll to the sea is also intended to inspire Georgians, however, this time it’s to inspire them to cease support of attitudes that maybe limiting them from experiencing their life to its fullest,” the website states.
Along the route, Barham performed and distributed education materials about his charity. The trip also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Kargbo and Johnson were documenting each stop on the way. The group left on May 11 and planned to end Saturday in Savannah, where Barham and his band, Brazilian Fusion, were scheduled to headline a concert at Trinity United Methodist Church.
“I want it to be my best show,” Barham told his band mates.
But the historic trip came to an end tragically Wednesday when the van Kargbo and Johnson were traveling in was hit from behind by a loaded gas tanker tractor-trailer in Screven County, according to Franka Young, a spokeswoman for the Georgia State Patrol. The van then crashed into Barham, who was in his wheelchair on Ga. 21.
“The van was not equipped with any additional warning lights and only had several hand written poster boards affixed to the rear of the vehicle,” Young said in an emailed statement.
Barham was in his wheelchair as it traveled across the left lane, into the median and caught fire, but the driver of the van was removed before the van became fully engulfed, according to the GSP. Barham and Kargbo both died, Screven County coroner James Strickland said.
The van’s driver, Johnson, of Villa Rica, was injured and airlifted to the burn unit at Doctor’s Hospital of Augusta, Young said. The driver of the tractor-trailer, Kenneth W. Richards, 46, of North Augusta, S.C., was not injured. The GSP Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team is conducting a follow-up investigation, Young said.
In Atlanta, friends and fellow musicians were shocked to learn of the tragedy and circumstances of the wreck, during a journey so anticipated by Barham and encouraged by his friends. Saturday’s performance has been cancelled.
“His dream was to go to Savannah, but God had another path for him,” Fernanda Noronha, who sang in Barham’s band, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Born in Memphis and raised in Durham, N.C., Barham was inspired by blues music and loved jazz and R&B sounds. Mix those three together with a bit of funk, and that was the sound Barham was known for and loved. Brazilian Fusion performed in numerous local shows, including recently at the Atlanta Jazz Festival MARTA Monday Series.
Barham was also known for playing with other musicians throughout Atlanta, Rafael Pereira, a drummer, said Thursday afternoon.
“He just related so well to people,” Pereira said. “He was out everywhere, sitting in with every band he could.”
Barham had been married for 19 years to his wife, Adriana, who called him the love of her life.
“He was a very sweet and sensitive soul,” she told Channel 2 Action News.
Kargbo graduated from Howard University in 2002, and after working various jobs in the public relations field, she founded her own company, iWonder Media Group, four years ago. Her professional experience included marketing, event coordinating, fundraising and everything in between, and she mixed her skills with her passion for promoting the arts, according to colleagues.
A Go Fund Me page was created Thursday to assist her family with funeral costs.
“For a woman who spent her life pouring light and love into the lives of others…we say thank you,” the family posted on the page. “The arts and culture, and social justice/activism communities grieve the loss, but celebrate the life of a powerful force.”
Funeral arrangements for Kargbo and Barham had not been announced late Thursday.