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Mary Barr

April 13, 2015

Clemson University lecturer Mary Barr (PhD 2008, African American Studies, Sociology) is author of Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality (University of Chicago Press, 2014).

The book is based on her prize-winning dissertation, “Black and White Together: Constructing Integration while Establishing de facto Segregation,” advised by Paul Gilroy, Jonathan Holloway, and Matthew Jacobson. She treasures the guidance they provided and is especially grateful for “Paul Gilroy’s insistence to be political, biased, and bold; Jonathan Holloway’s determined and unflinching African American history; and Matthew Jacobson’s scrutiny of whiteness and privilege.”

In Friends Disappear, Barr examines racial inequality in the desegregated Northern city where she grew up and analyzes how the racial divide limited some young people while providing opportunities for others, despite attempts to integrate that began in the 1960s. The book cover shows a 1974 photo of Barr and 12 of her friends, both black and white, following their middle school graduation in Evanston, Illinois. Thirty years later she returned to her old neighborhood to piece together a history of the city with a particular emphasis on its neighborhoods, schools, and work life.

Structural forces created two separate and unequal life paths for my middle school friends, who either benefit from race and class privilege or don’t,” Barr says.

The photo speaks to the history of Evanston, to integration, and to the ways that those in the picture experienced and remembered growing up in a place that many at that time considered a racial utopia.”

Barr argues that the city desegregation plan was partly to blame. One of many initiatives called for busing students from an all-black elementary school to institutions in white neighborhoods, which only increased the racial divide.  

High school is where middle school friends began to disappear, separated by academic tracking or sorting students into classes based on presumed academic abilities,” she says.

Her research uncovered policies that protected racial and class privilege rather than supported integrated public education and open housing. “It is not surprising, then, that my white classmates and I succeeded while many of my black classmates did not,” she says. “While this book focuses on one city’s struggle to integrate schools and neighborhoods, the story could have taken place anywhere in America.”  

Research for Barr’s book was supported, in part, by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, Black Metropolis Research Consortium, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

She is currently working on Protest in Suburbia! The 1965 North Shore Summer Project, an exploration of civil rights activism in the Jim Crow Midwest. “The Summer Project was a student-led initiative that challenged discriminatory housing practices in suburbs north of Chicago,” she explains. “It was the first so-called ‘direct action’ civil rights protest in a suburban area and a remarkable marriage of civil rights fervor with suburban sophistication and resources.”

While at Yale, Barr was affiliated with Calhoun College, where she was named Associate Fellow in 2007. She taught “Oral History and the African American Experience” several times in the Yale College seminar program and was an active member of the Photographic Memory Workshop and the Black Liberation Authors’ writing group. She was also a founding co-editor of Maroon: The Yale Journal of African American Studies. After graduation, she was an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow in Sociology and Africana Studies at Pomona College.