Remembering Barbara Kensey, publicist, black heritage, art and culture guru
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For two decades, when Chicago’s black arts and cultural institutions needed marketing help, they turned to Barbara Kensey.
The CEO of Kensey & Kensey Communications was an arts and culture guru who loved music, theater, black heritage and tourism, merging all those loves in a career spanning 40-plus years.
Ms. Kensey died of lung cancer Saturday at Holy Cross Hospital, where she had been in hospice care. She was 71.
“My mother was a strong, caring, independent, hard-working and artistic professional, who exposed me to culture from a very young age,” said her son, Steven Kensey.
“She loved the arts, and worked with so many of the city’s black theater and music organizations. In their earliest years, she’s who they all turned to for help raising their profile. I was privileged and honored to be pulled to work alongside her,” he said. “Every day with her was a learning experience.”
The veteran P.R. practitioner, arts and culture consultant, as well as prolific writer, was a pioneer in the tourism industry. She was founding publisher of “The Guide to Black Chicago/Access Black Chicago,” the first visitor’s and resource guide to the city’s black history, culture and entertainment.
She developed and conducted black heritage tours in Chicago, and for a long time was the official Hyde Park-Kenwood tour guide for the city’s tourism office. A world traveler, her writings have appeared in national magazines, locally and in anthologies.
Born in Chicago, Ms. Kensey was raised on the Near North Side, where she attended Cooley Upper Grade Center, subject of the 1975 “Cooley High” film, and graduated from Waller High, now Lincoln Park High. She attended City Colleges of Chicago, then began work as a secretary, eventually working her way into public relations to support her son as a single mother.
“The public relations and arts communities has lost a gem,” said close friend and fellow Chicago publicist Don Rashid.
“Barbara was an accomplished communicator and public relations maven, who rode the crest of the wave of cultural activism among black professionals in the late ’70s and early ’80s, borne out of the civil rights struggles of the ’60s,” he said.
“Strong willed and focused, she paired those attributes and education with her love of Black — black culture, theater, arts, travel and literature. That calling propelled her to one of the most sought-after publicists to the black culture community. She understood their craft because of her intense love for the arts.”
Ms. Kensey was hired by the city Department of Cultural Affairs under the late Mayor Jane Byrne in the late ’70s, staying with the department through the late ’80s, spanning the administrations of the late Mayor Harold Washington and two later mayors.
She then launched her nearly 30-year-old media relations/event marketing firm, with her diverse client roster ranging from local, national and international figures, to corporate, government and nonprofit groups, and her beloved arts and cultural institutions.
“She’s represented us since we first launched in ’92,” said longtime client Ephraim Martin, founder of the International Festival of Life, a summer fest now in its 26th year at Union Park.
“She eventually joined our board of directors, and was in charge of it all. She’s guided and helped so many people and organizations in the African-American community, from ETA Theater to DuSable Museum,” he said. “When groups were not in the position to pay, she’d waive her fees to get them the help they needed. She is a community leader who will be missed.”
The recipient of numerous awards, Ms. Kensey served on the Advisory Board of the Chicago Defender, was a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, where she sang in the choir, and volunteered with numerous civic organizations.
On her website, she describes her journey in her own words: “My life as an entrepreneur began at about eight years old when my sister and I would comb through magazines to order garden seeds and velvet-like wall mottos that said things like ‘God Bless our Home.’ Then we would sell them door to door,” she wrote.
“From there we graduated to selling lemonade and kool-aid popsicles created by freezing the sweet drink in metal ice trays into which sticks were stuck at just the right moment to create a popsicle. In between, we read books — lots of them. It was through these books that I began to view the world as a place much bigger than our little neighborhood — and where I began to hunger for my story.”
Besides her son, survivors include her mother, Mary Kensey; four sisters, Betty Johnson Scott, Rose Johnson Warren, Shirley Johnson, and Dorothy Riddell, and a brother, Laurence Kensey.
A tribute will be held on May 25, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Room 43, 1043 E. 43rd St.