Barthelemy was born in New Orleans, the third of six children in a Creole family. He grew up in the Seventh Ward, and attended Corpus Christi Elementary School and St. Augustine High School (New Orleans). From 1960 to 1963, in preparation for entering the priesthood, he studied at Epiphany Apostolic Junior College in Newburgh, New York, and then entered St. Joseph Seminary in Washington, D.C., where he received a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and pursued graduate study in theology. While in seminary, he worked summers as a laborer in a stevedoring company.
In 1967, having made the decision not to enter the priesthood, Barthelemy returned to New Orleans and worked as an administrative assistant in the office of Total Community Action. From 1969 to 1972, he served as director of the Parent Child Center of Family Health, Inc. During these years he also completed a Masters of Social Work at Tulane University in New Orleans, worked part-time for the Urban League of Greater New Orleans and assisted with various political campaigns, joining COUP, a political organization based in the 7th Ward of New Orleans.
Dr. Clarence C. Haydel, Jr
Robert H. Tucker, Jr.
Joseph Orticke, Jr
From 1972 to 1974, Barthelemy served as Director of the Department of Welfare under the administration of Mayor Moon Landrieu. With the aid of COUP, he was elected in 1974 to one term in the Louisiana State Senate from District 4; he was the first African-American to serve in that body since Reconstruction. While he served in the Legislature, he also joined Xavier University as the assistant director of the Urbinvolve Program and as an instructor in the Department of Sociology and became an adjuct faculty member in the Applied Health Sciences Department, Maternal and Child Health Section, of Tulane University.
In 1978, Barthelemy was elected to an at-large seat on the New Orleans City Council, a position he held for two terms. While in council, Barthelemy become known for a longstanding rivalry with Mayor "Dutch" Morial. He defeated Bill Jefferson in the 1986 race to succeed Morial.
Barthelemy as mayor
Taking office in 1986, Barthelemy was faced with an economic slump after the 'oil bust': unemployment in New Orleans was at 11%. Taking a less hands-on approach to economic development than his predecessor Morial, Barthelemy preferred to let the private sector be the primary engine of growth. Given the inclinations of the majority of white voters who supported him in his election, Barthelemy took a pro-business stance. He managed to bring the giant Pic N' Save distribution center and other industrial development to New Orleans East.
The city also faced a fiscal crisis in the form of a $30 million deficit. Barthelemy managed to gradually eliminate this deficit, but his methods of raising revenue - legalization of a land-based casino and riverboat gambling - were controversial. He took control of agencies such as the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), providing appointments to members of COUP and other political allies.
He continued with the city's growing dependence on a tourism-based economy, bringing the Republican National Convention to the city in 1988 and the NCAA Final Four tournament in 1993. He also oversaw the opening of the Aquarium of the Americas, the Riverfront streetcar, and began an expansion of the Convention Center.
Other highlights of the Barthelemy administration were the visit of the Pope in 1987, the passage of the controversial "anti-discrimination" ordinance affecting the membership in Carnival krewes, the unsuccessful pursuit of a recreation park/amusement center for Armstrong Park, and the securing of funding for the new sports arena next to the Superdome.
In 1993, Barthelemy was responsible for bringing a little-known statewide political perk to the attention of the state. At his son's graduation ceremony from Brother Martin High School, it was announced that he would be receiving the "Mayor's academic scholarship to Tulane University." This drew a mixed reaction from the crowd in attendance. The next day, the story was on the local news in New Orleans. By the end of the week, the story had made it across the state and it was revealed that Tulane University gave scholarships to all members of the Louisiana Congress, Louisiana representatives in the U.S. Congress, the Louisiana Governor, and other influential Louisiana politicians. These elected officials were permitted to award these scholarships to anyone they saw fit, regardless of their qualifications. Through further investigation, it was revealed that politicians regularly gave these scholarships to their own family members and to the children of political allies. In some instances, the scholarships were given out in exchange for political favors. Barthelemy's son briefly attended a state university before dropping out of college.
Throughout his political career, Barthelemy developed a reputation as a quiet and mild politician, a marked contrast to his fiery predecessor Dutch Morial and to typical New Orleans politicians in general. His critics interpreted this as a sign of passivity and poor leadership. His re-election campaign in 1990 was faced with widespread criticism and perceived lack of leadership, but Barthelemy managed to defeat challenger Donald Mintz.
After City Hall
Currently, Sidney Barthelemy is serving as the Director of Governmental Affairs for Historic Restoration, Inc., a real estate development group based out of New Orleans. On January 7, 2006, Barthelemy joined former mayors Moon Landrieu and Marc Morial in a meeting with parish presidents from the New Orleans metropolitan area to discuss post-Katrina plans for regional flood protection .