UIC historian earns inaugural national award for economic, social justice

Barbara Ransby
Barbara Ransby, professor of Black studies, gender and women’s studies, and history; MacArthur Endowed Chair; LAS distinguished professor; and director of the Social Justice Initiative at UIC. Photo: Mary Hanlon

Acclaimed University of Illinois Chicago historian Barbara Ransby has been named to the Freedom Scholars, a select group of progressive academics who are at the “forefront of movements for economic and social justice.”

Ransby and 11 other members of the inaugural scholarly cohort will each receive $250,000 over two years as part of a $3 million investment in social and economic justice scholarship by the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Group Health Foundation.

The Freedom Scholars awards were established to enhance the financial resources available to scholars leading abolitionist, Black, feminist, queer, radical and anti-colonialist studies.

“These Freedom Scholars are shifting the balance of power to families and communities that have been historically excluded from the resources and benefits of society,” said Carmen Rojas, CEO and president of the Marguerite Casey Foundation. “Support for their research, organizing, and academic work is pivotal in this moment where there is a groundswell of support to hold our political and economic leaders accountable. With Freedom Scholars, we seek to honor the long arc of freedom organized by leaders in our institutions of higher education.”

Ransby is a professor of Black studies, history, and gender and women’s studies; a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences distinguished professor, and an award-winning author. In July, she became the first endowed John D. MacArthur Chair at UIC and only the second in the history of endowed MacArthur chairs in the University of Illinois System.

She also directs the Social Justice Initiative at UIC, which promotes connections between academics and community organizers working on social justice. The Freedom Scholar resources will support the Social Justice Initiative’s Portal Project to bring community fellows and visiting scholars to campus.

“As a historian who writes about radical Black women, I take inspiration from my subjects’ fierceness and fortitude. In this moment, I am excited to launch and lead The Portal Project, which will convene cutting-edge scholars and front-line activists in conversations about how to change a world deeply in need of change,” said Ransby, who has been at UIC since 1996. “Carmen Rojas (president of the Marguerite Casey Foundation) is a visionary leader in philanthropy. Her initiative will facilitate game-changing scholarship in the areas of social and racial justice. It is the kind of intervention that is desperately needed.”

Ransby’s books include the multiple award-winning biography “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision,” which was called “one of the most influential books of the last 20 years” by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2018. Her other books include “Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century” and “Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson,” which earned her the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Prize for the best book in African American women’s history from the Association of Black Women Historians.

Earlier this year, she became an elected fellow of the Society of American Historians. Her other honors include the American Studies Association’s Angela Y. Davis Prize for public scholarship in 2018, and she was named among the top 25 women in higher education by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine in 2017. Ransby is also a board member at the Woods Fund of Chicago.

“Grantees have repeatedly told us they are tired of fighting for access to systems and structures that were not created for them,” said Nichole June Maher, CEO of the Group Health Foundation. “What we want is a new vision and new ideas for what it means for our society to be just, fair and free. The Freedom Scholars are important to this reimagination.”

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