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Barbara Ransby

African American studies and history professor Barbara Ransby was born on May 12, 1957 in Detroit, Michigan. As an infant, Ransby was adopted by Charlie and Ethel Ransby. She completed her B.A. degree in history from Columbia University in 1984. During her time at Columbia, Ransby worked for the Institute of African Affairs and the Department of History as a research assistant. Ransby received her M.S. degree in history from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1987. While at the University of Michigan, she taught African American studies. Ransby founded the Ella Baker-Nelson Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education in 1988 and the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves Organization in 1991. She served as an instructor of history at DePaul University from 1992 to 1995; and an assistant professor and director of the Center for African American Research from 1995 to 1996. Ransby received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1996.

Following the completion of her education, she joined the faculty of the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) as an assistant professor in the departments of history and African American studies. In 1998, Ransby co-founded the Black Radical Congress and in 2002, she was promoted to associate professor at UIC. In 2003, Ransby authored the award-winning biography of civil rights activist Ella Baker, entitled Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. In 2004, she received the Coordinating Council for Women in History's Prelinger Award. Since 2008, Ransby has served as professor and director of UIC's Gender and Women Studies Department and in 2011, she was appointed interim vice provost for planning and programs at UIC. She has written many articles and contributed to several books on civil rights, black feminism and African American history.

Ransby has served on the board of directors for many organizations including the CrossRoads Fund, Chicago Reporter Magazine, Anti-Racism Institute and the Chicago Coalition in Solidarity with Southern Africa. She has been a member of the Association of Black Women Historians, the Coordinating Committee for Women in Historical Profession and the Organization of American Historians. Ransby serves on the editorial board of The Race and Class Journal and on the editorial advisory board of The Black Commentator, an online publication. She is married to Peter Sporn; the couple have two children Asha and Jason.

Barbara Ransby was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on January 19, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.016

Sex

Female

Interview Date

1/19/2012

Last Name

Ransby

Maker Category
Schools

Columbia University

University of Michigan

Columbian Elementary School

St. Leo High School

Rosary High School

Wayne State University

First Name

Barbara

Birth City, State, Country

Detroit

HM ID

RAN10

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Michigan

Favorite Vacation Destination

Lake Michigan

Favorite Quote

Give People Light And They Will Find The Way. And Ella Baker Quotes

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Interview Description
Birth Date

5/12/1957

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

USA

Short Description

History professor and african american studies professor Barbara Ransby (1957 - ) joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1996 and was the author of the book, 'Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement'.

Employment

DePaul University

University of Illinois, Chicago

Team for Justice, Inc.

Project Headline

North End Concerned Citizens Community Council

Progressive Media Project

Favorite Color

Black

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635871">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Barbara Ransby's interview</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635872">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Barbara Ransby lists her favorites</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635873">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Barbara Ransby describes her adoptive mother's family background</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635874">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Barbara Ransby talks about her adoption</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635875">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Barbara Ransby describes her adoptive father's family background</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635876">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Barbara Ransby talks about her adoptive parents' migration to Detroit, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635877">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Barbara Ransby describes her adoptive parents' personalities and who she takes after</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635878">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Barbara Ransby describes her earliest childhood memories</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635879">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Barbara Ransby describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635880">Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Barbara Ransby remembers the riots of 1967 in Detroit, Michigan, pt. 1</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635881">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Barbara Ransby remembers the riots of 1967 in Detroit, Michigan, pt. 2</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635882">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Barbara Ransby remembers her social column in the Michigan Chronicle</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635883">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Barbara Ransby describes her experiences at Columbian Elementary School in Detroit, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635884">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Barbara Ransby remembers an influential teacher at Columbian Elementary School in Detroit, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635885">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Barbara Ransby recalls her childhood pastimes</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635886">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Barbara Ransby talks about St. Leo High School in Detroit, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635887">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Barbara Ransby describes her experiences at Rosary High School in Detroit, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635888">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Barbara Ransby talks about the African American community in Detroit, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635889">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Barbara Ransby talks about color discrimination within the African American community</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635890">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Barbara Ransby talks about her early influences</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635891">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Barbara Ransby describes her work with the Team for Justice, Inc.</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635892">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Barbara Ransby talks about her career and education in Detroit, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635893">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Barbara Ransby describes her decision to move to New York City</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635894">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Barbara Ransby describes her experiences at Columbia University in New York City</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635895">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Barbara Ransby talks about her studies at Columbia University in New York City</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635896">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Barbara Ransby describes her political involvement at Columbia University in New York City</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635897">Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Barbara Ransby remembers her mentor, Eric Foner</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635898">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Barbara Ransby talks about the status of black female historians</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635899">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Barbara Ransby remembers attending anti-apartheid conferences</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635900">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Barbara Ransby describes her role in Columbia University's divestment from South Africa</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635901">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Barbara Ransby talks about the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635902">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Barbara Ransby remembers her professors at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635903">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Barbara Ransby talks about her decision to study the life of Ella Baker</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635904">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Barbara Ransby describes her research on Ella Baker</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635905">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Barbara Ransby talks about the role of a community organizer</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635906">Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Barbara Ransby describes Ella Baker's involvement with the SCLC and SNCC</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635907">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Barbara Ransby reflects upon the legacy of Ella Baker</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635908">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Barbara Ransby talks about her book, 'Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement'</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635909">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Barbara Ransby describes her anti-apartheid activism at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635910">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Barbara Ransby talks about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635911">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Barbara Ransby describes her experiences with the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635912">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Barbara Ransby recalls her work at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635913">Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Barbara Ransby describes her role at the Progressive Media Project</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635914">Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Barbara Ransby talks about her teaching position at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635915">Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Barbara Ransby talks about her teaching experiences</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635916">Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Barbara Ransby remembers the release of Nelson Mandela</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635917">Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Barbara Ransby talks about the founding of the Black Radical Congress in 1998</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635918">Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Barbara Ransby talks about her literary contributions</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635919">Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Barbara Ransby describes her role as interim vice provost at the University of Illinois at Chicago</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635920">Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Barbara Ransby talks about her book 'Eslanda'</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635921">Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Barbara Ransby reflects upon her legacy</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635922">Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Barbara Ransby talks about her family</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635923">Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Barbara Ransby describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635924">Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Barbara Ransby reflects upon her life</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/635925">Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Barbara Ransby describes how she would like to be remembered</a>

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$4

DAStory

3$7

DATitle
Barbara Ransby describes her role in Columbia University's divestment from South Africa
Barbara Ransby describes her research on Ella Baker
Transcript
Now, let me go back to Columbia [Columbia University, New York, New York] for--$$Oh, okay.$$--I mean, yeah, for a minute, and get you graduated.$$(Laughter).$$So, when you graduated, what were your prospects? Were you, did you--$$So I got, fortunately, I got a fellowship that was--I was considering, we were considering. I was married at the time, and pregnant with my first child [Jason Ransby-Sporn], who was born a few days before graduation, so I actually did not go to my graduation. I was looking for a parking space on the Upper West Side [New York, New York] to bring home this new baby. But I got a fellowship, a Mellon Fellowship, which was a portable--national graduate student fellowship, which was portable, and I could take it to, what, you know, whatever school I got accepted. So, that was helpful, and I decided to take it to Michigan in Ann Arbor [University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan], partly, my husband [Peter H. Sporn] made a commitment to do medical training there, but we had decided together. Our parents were in Detroit [Michigan]. We wanted to come back to the Midwest, and there were people at Michigan at the time who I--in the history department, who I respected and wanted to work with. So, that was the plan. But right as I was graduating, the antiapartheid struggle and divestment movement at Michigan, I mean at Columbia, really heated up in 1984. We had a, we initially had a vote of the student faculty senate [University Senate] for divestment. Then the trustees intervened, and said, "Wait a minute." (Laughter) "You may think this is a decision making body. It's more of an advisory body, and we don't know that we can really go along with this." So, then we had faculty allies, because the faculty was like, "Well, wait a minute. We thought this was a serious deliberative body," because we'd won the faculty over. So, the trustees intervened, and it was just a very intense period during which, you know, it was my first pregnancy, so it was very intense for me. And I remember just laying awake many nights thinking what should we do next, how should we handle this, who should we pull in, where should we draw the line, because the university was trying to sort of negotiate, and there were lots of other propositions on the table other than divestment of what, you know, what universities could do. So, they had a vote, and this sort of played out in 1984. And then you may recall, the year after I graduated, all the people I had worked with in the Coalition for a Free South Africa culminated in a takeover of buildings on Columbia's campus in 1985. And it, you know, it made national and international news. The people from the Harlem community [New York, New York], you know, Elombe Brath [ph.], and Sam Anderson and Baraka [Amiri Baraka], who was in New Jersey--but all these folks kind of converged on the campus to support the students. The campus was shut down and it was, you know, it was very dramatic. And ultimately, Columbia was pushed to divest, but it was at a point where other schools were coming to divest as well. But that was an important moment in that struggle. A lot of forces came together and I think it was a memorable moment for a lot of activists who had gone on to do other kinds of work. So, that was my closing chapter at Columbia. Now the interesting thing, you know, people have asked the question, you know, our current president was at Columbia during that time. And so, a number of people have asked--I did not know him then. You know, maybe he was in some demonstration, I had no idea.$$You're talking about Barack Obama [HistoryMaker President Barack Obama].$$I am talking about Barack Obama (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Okay.$$Yes. So, but we did not, we did not really overlap. And this was a struggle that I lived and breathed every day. So, you know, he wasn't in the inner circle of it. But, so, it's interesting that he was there at the time, so.$$Okay. Does it disturb you that he wasn't involved at all?$$No. And like I say, you know, he may have been on the periphery. But, you asked me the question about how many people. I mean, at times we had many hundreds of people in front of the library at Columbia. And at some times it would be like three or four of us, and we'd stand there looking around hoping someone else would show up. So, it wasn't something that was consistent in terms of a large number of people. Once it got some momentum we could count on, a critical core of people--when there were big actions, there were critical cores of people, but, I mean a mass of people. But, in an ongoing way, the majority of students, including the majority of black students, were not, you know, they were doing what people do. They were going to class and (laughter) trying to get out of there. So.$$As an activist though, when you look back on it, I mean, did the activists kind of know who was an activist?$$Oh, yeah.$$And I know how most activists think. They think everybody ought to be one (laughter).$$Well, you want that, you want that. But there, but I also understand there's lots of pressures on how people live their lives and so forth. Everybody doesn't choose to be a full-time activist, which is what some of us were for a number of years. And that was true at the height of the, you know, what we termed the civil rights and black freedom movement. The majority of people were not in SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] (laughter). The majority of people were not in the Black Panther Party, even though those organizations influenced thousands and thousands of people, and people supported to varying degrees for shorter you know, and longer periods of time. But in terms of a core of activists, the majority were not.$Well describe, I guess, what it was like trying to research El- Ella Baker.$$Well, it was energizing and exciting and difficult and frustrating, sometimes all at the same time. I did this first round of work on my dissertation, and then I did a whole other round of work on the book ['Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision,' Barbara Ransby]. I interviewed a number of people and--Ella Baker has papers. I did look at Ella Baker's papers. They're now at the Schomburg [Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, New York]. But I really also patched together an archive of Ella Baker material through all the different people she knew and organizations she was involved in. I spent a lot of time in the Library of Congress [Washington, D.C.] in the NAACP papers [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. She worked for the NAACP for a number of years. I looked at the papers of other individuals that she had had contact with, newspaper clippings. There was a lot of material at the Schomburg, bits and pieces in different collections. She had worked with George Schuyler on the Young Negroes Cooperative League in the 1930s, so I found information on that. And so it really was a kind of quilting process, of patching together all of these fragments of Ella Baker's life. I looked at census material, I traveled to Littleton, North Carolina where she grew up, and interviewed people there and went to the public library there, and the county courthouse and so forth. So, you know, it was a journey to really discover her life, and you know, this work of biography. I've just now finished a second biography on Eslanda Robeson ['Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson,' Barbara Ransby], Paul Robeson's wife. But the work of biography--you ask questions of other people's lives. You may not even know those answers about your own life. Like, you've just asked me questions about my own family history. I could probably better answer some of those questions about Ella Baker or Essie Robeson [Eslanda Goode Robeson], than myself. But you are a bit of a voyeur, you kind of wade into very personal areas of someone's life who you didn't know, and wasn't invited to do, necessarily. So it's always a balancing act, of what are you looking for, what do you want to know, what do you need to know, what does an audience and a reader need know to know this person? And then there's the issue of silences. I mean, what kinds of things are just not as important, because you never tell the whole story of a life. You tell a part of a life. And as a biographer, you decide what part gets told, right? Some of that's what, you know, what you find and don't find, but then there are choices. So, it was an interesting, wonderful journey to research Ms. Baker's life. And you know, there was sadness and inspiration, I think, in it.