Barnhart earned his bachelor's degree at Southern Methodist University and a doctorate from the University of Chicago, having completed a dissertation in 1924 entitled, "The Evolution of the Socialized Consciousness in Methodism".
Barnhart came to Birmingham-Southern in 1928 from Harris Teachers College in St Louis, Missouri.
While in Birmingham, Barnhart studied factors relating to race, education and gender with regard to homicide and suicide in the United States, the South, and in Birmingham in particular. He also investigated the causes and effects of homelessness, prostitution and slum housing.
Despite the great popularity of his classes, Barnhart's position was tenuous, and he was encouraged in 1931 and 1932 to seek employment elsewhere, but was unsuccessful. On one occasion he agreed to stop using a textbook which included a chapter on evolution after a complaint from a ministerial student. Beginning in 1933 Barnhart led a newly-organized "Henry M. Edmonds Bible Class for Men" at Independent Presbyterian Church.
As the much-publicized criminal trial of the "Scottsboro Boys" approached, Barnhart spoke at a rally organized by the Citizens Scottsboro Aid Committee of Birmingham at First Congregational Church, and co-signed a telegram to Governor Benjamin Miller and Attorney General Thomas Knight Jr urging them to move the trial to Birmingham.
On February 20, 1933 Barnhart was dismissed from the faculty by BSC president Guy Snavely. Barnhart believed that he was fired for being, "too liberal in his sociological views," and he appealed to the board of trustees. Snavely countered that the decision was made for economic reasons, and since the sociology department had been added most recently, that it would have to be cut back to introductory classes only, "until times get better." The board upheld Snavely's decision in March. In May a subcommittee of the American Association of University Professors reported that the college treated Barnhart fairly.
After leaving Birmingham, Barnhart was hired as a researcher for the Community Chest in St Louis, Missouri. He went on to teach at San Diego State University from 1940 to 1965. He was married to the former Katherine Stanford. His sons, Kenneth Jr and Donald, both served in World War II.
Barnhart died in 1980 and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego.
- "Scottsboro Case to Be Discussed" (March 23, 1933) The Birmingham News
- "Barnhart, 'Fired', Appeals to Board." (March 26, 1933) The Birmingham News
- "Approval is Given College's Action in Barnhart Case" (May 27, 1933) The Birmingham News
- Carey, James T. (1975) Sociology and Public Affairs
- Kenneth E. Barnhart at Findagrave.com