Professor Barbara Ransby named MacArthur Chair

Barbara Ransby
Barbara Ransby, distinguished professor of African American studies, gender and women’s Studies, and history, and director of the Social Justice Initiative at UIC.

University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Professor Barbara Ransby has been named a John D. MacArthur Endowed Chair, University of Illinois System President Tim Killeen announced Thursday.

Ransby is a professor of History, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Black Studies, a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences distinguished professor, and an award-winning author. She becomes the first endowed John D. MacArthur professor at UIC and only the second in the history of endowed MacArthur chairs in the U of I System.

The MacArthur chairs at the University of Illinois were created in 1981 through a gift from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which also sponsors the well-known MacArthur Fellows or “Genius Grant” program. Prior to his retirement in 2019, Urbana-Champaign Physics Professor Emeritus and Nobel laureate Anthony Leggett was the only MacArthur chair.

MacArthur chairs are nominated by their chancellors and awarded by the president of the U of I System after a review by the MacArthur Chair Review Committee. Chairs are faculty members who are internationally recognized scholars and who “give promise of making a substantial impact” on their department and university. The chair includes $65,000 in funding for salary and research.

Killeen praised Ransby and called her an influential scholar whose work has documented the racial inequity and divisions at the heart of much of the current American discourse.

“It gives me great pleasure to recognize Professor Ransby and her work with this richly deserved honor,” Killeen said. “She is an accomplished historian and writer whose voice has long helped shape our understanding of issues around race, class, justice and fundamental civil rights. And today, her scholarship is ever so vital in helping us move toward structural and systemic changes at the state and national levels.”

Ransby said she is both honored by the recognition and eager to use it to magnify the impact of her work.

“I am appreciative of this recognition and the resources that come with it,” she said. “In these precarious times, I intend to lend these dollars to the collective social and racial justice projects that I am a part of.”

Ransby is an asset to UIC, and to Chicago and the state of Illinois, UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis said.

“This honor recognizes the profound impact of Professor Ransby’s work and her stature in her field,” Amiridis said. “As Chicago’s largest and only public research university, with one of the most diverse university communities in the nation, UIC has a unique responsibility to drive meaningful change that lifts up African Americans who remain underserved and under-represented in nearly every aspect of their lives. During this difficult moment in history, when we are witnessing the greatest social upheavals in half a century, Professor Ransby’s scholarship will continue to inform our path forward, and we are immensely fortunate to have her voice guiding our efforts.”

Ransby has published dozens of articles and essays, in both popular and scholarly publications, part of a career-long commitment to reaching audiences beyond the academy.

“My research focuses on African-American women’s political and intellectual history and the creation of archives that tell their stories,” she said. “I am also deeply committed to engaging a larger public, and providing scholarship that contributes to the ongoing struggles for greater freedom and justice in the world.”

Ransby is also the author of three books, including an award-winning biography of civil rights activist Ella Baker, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision.” The book, published in 2003, has been recognized with eight national book awards, including the Liberty-Legacy award from the Organization of American Historians; the Joan Kelly prize from the American Historical Association (AHA); and the James A. Rawley Prize (also from the AHA). In 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education called the book “one of the most influential books of the last twenty years.”

Ransby’s most recent book is “Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.” It was published in 2018 and touches on themes behind some of the most urgent issues of 2020. In the book, Ransby weaves together the common threads behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

She also is the author of the 2013 award-winning book “Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson,” which explores Eslanda “Essie” Cardozo Goode Robeson’s career as an anthropologist, journalist and advocate for women’s rights, as well as her influence on her actor, singer and activist husband’s early career. The book received the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial prize for the best book in African American women’s history from the Association of Black Women Historians.

In addition to the book awards, Ransby has been widely recognized for her scholarly leadership.

This year, she was elected as a fellow to the Society of American Historians.

In 2017, she was honored as “one of the top 25 women in higher education” by Diverse Issues in Higher Education. She is also a recipient of the 2018 Angela Y. Davis Prize from the American Studies Association for scholarship in service of the public good, and was also honored that year by the Society of Professors of Education with the William H. Watkins award. And in 2016, Ransby was elected to a two-year term as president of the National Women’s Studies Association.

In 2015, she served on a three-person jury for the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

Ransby has also published and lectured widely at conferences, community forums and on more than 50 college campuses.

Outside of her academic work, Ransby was an initiator of the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves campaign in 1991, and a founder of Ella’s Daughters, a network of women working in Ella Baker’s tradition. She is also a co-founder of Scholars for Social Justice, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago.

A native of Detroit, Ransby earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Columbia University and a master’s degree and PhD in history from the University of Michigan.

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