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Friends Disappear

The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston

Friends Disappear

The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston

Mary Barr thinks a lot about the old photograph hanging on her refrigerator door.  In it, she and a dozen or so of her friends from the Chicago suburb of Evanston sit on a porch. It's 1974, the summer after they graduated from Nichols Middle School, and what strikes her immediately—aside from the Soul Train–era clothes—is the diversity of the group: boys and girls, black and white, in the variety of poses you'd expect from a bunch of friends on the verge of high school. But the photo also 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 to be a racial utopia.

In Friends Disappear Barr goes back to her old neighborhood and pieces together a history of Evanston with a particular emphasis on its neighborhoods, its schools, and its work life. She finds that there is a detrimental myth of integration surrounding Evanston despite bountiful evidence of actual segregation, both in the archives and from the life stories of her subjects. Curiously, the city’s own desegregation plan is partly to blame. The initiative called for the redistribution of students from an all-black elementary school to institutions situated in white neighborhoods.  That, however, required busing, and between the tensions it generated and obvious markers of class difference, the racial divide, far from being closed, was widened.  Friends Disappear highlights how racial divides limited the life chances of blacks while providing opportunities for whites, and offers an insider’s perspective on the social practices that doled out benefits and penalties based on race—despite attempts to integrate.

304 pages | 27 halftones, 3 maps, 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Chicago Visions and Revisions

Black Studies

Chicago and Illinois

History: American History, General History

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


“A fascinating and painful study of one city's struggle with integration, fair housing and equality. . . . Barr's work is a nuanced yet sometimes disturbing look at Evanston's evolution on this important topic.”

Chicago Tribune

“[An] excellent example of how to get past the figurative and literal gates of the suburbs in order to explore themes and processes that are central to sociological inquiry—inequality, social control, intergenerational reproduction, racial stratification, family relations, delinquency, school sorting, and many more. . . . Barr explodes the myth of racial equality and exposes practices of exclusion and segregation in the experiences of her black and white friends at Evanston Township High School.”

Mary Pattillo | American Journal of Sociology

“Barr has written a perceptive, moving, and at times turbulent portrait of Evanston, IL, a town that boasts an image of racial harmony and integration, even as it continues to produce sharp racial disparities in the life chances of its residents. In exploring the fate of her own generation of Evanstonians, Barr reveals the powerful role of race in structuring access to opportunity, wealth, and even to life itself. This story of an interracial group of childhood friends serves as a metaphor for the persistence of inequality in post-civil rights America; but we must also make it a call to action.”

Martha Biondi, Northwestern University

“This bold and beautifully modulated book adds substantively to knowledge of Chicago’s suburbs. It takes apart the machinery of systematic inequality with both sensitivity and patience. Barr offers more than a vivid, sociological survey of how racial hierarchy collided with the lived experience of children unaware of how it overdetermined their life chances. All the more shocking for its mildness, Friends Disappear is an innovative work about racism that deserves to be influential and very widely read.”

Paul Gilroy | King’s College London

“Barr’s gripping exploration of the divergent paths friends took away from a childhood snapshot combines the rigor of scholarship with the personal touch of memoir. I have rarely read a book that so effectively illustrates the persistence of racial disparities in the United States with unforgettable, wrenching life stories.”

Amanda Seligman | University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

“Barr’s Friends Disappear is a poignant reminder of how far we have yet to travel when it comes to facing honestly the full complexity of the battles for civil rights and equality. Diving beneath the surface of what appeared to be a childhood filled with examples of racial progress, Barr uncovers a thicket of broken promises and unrealized dreams, the deflections of civic boosterism, and the tragic manifestations of structural inequalities that survived despite the ‘triumph’ of the civil rights movement. In our putatively post-racial world we urgently need to listen to what Barr is telling us.”

Jonathan Holloway | Yale University

“A provocative sociological case study. Grounded in her youth growing up in Evan­ston in the 1960s and 1970s, Barr’s narrative of the push for integration and its limits calls into question the ‘hegemonic account’ of the happily integrated Chicago suburb that is home to Northwestern University. . . . In the most compelling and original passages, Barr draws upon interviews with her friends to highlight individual consequences of per­sistent race and class inequality. . . . The accessibility of Barr’s argu­ments may allow her to attract a larger read­ership than many scholarly monographs for this effective brief against naïve optimism for a postracial society, even in the nation’s seem­ingly most enlightened and privileged sub­urbs.”

Jeffrey Helgeson | Journal of American History

“Barr should be commended for her attempts to marry abstract theory with tangible personalities and examples. She draws from a range of historical and sociological literature, using Evanston to typify the insights of other scholars. Most of what Barr discusses here will be familiar for most scholars, although distilling it into one case study is valuable and humanizing. . . . As a challenge to a city happily describing itself as integrated while ignoring the ways that it was not, Barr’s book is an important and valuable case study.”

American Historical Review

“A powerful and poignant application of the sociological imagination to the structural history and personal biography of a community’s race relations. Friends Disappear can serve as a text as well as a research monograph, and the writing is readily accessible to students. It can serve policymakers as a statement highlighting the subtlety of problems of class and the color line yet to be solved.”

Contemporary Sociology

“Unlike other works on school desegregation that detail the shape of policy or seek to evaluate its merits in relation to other forms of civil rights reform, in Friends Disappear, Barr provides an intimate look at the lives of the children who experienced it firsthand in Evanston, Illinois. Barr grew up in Evanston and was a student during the initial years of desegregation. She argues in Friends Disappear that the pervasive ways in which race and class shaped the lives of young people limited the extent to which school desegregation could serve as a remedy to the racial wrongs of the American past.”

Middle West Review

"Friends Disappear takes the novel and serendipitous approach of beginning with an autobiographical remnant-specifically, an old photograph of her and her racially diverse group of childhood friends, taken the summer before they entered high school in Evanston, Illinois. Barr traces the course of each of her friends’ lives. The result is a broad sociological analysis that mines the intersection of race and class, and the connections to life-chances in the late 1960s/early 1970s. While the specific setting of Barr’s research is Evanston, her commentary on the failed promise of integration has broad resonance in contemporary America.”

2017 Midwest Sociological Society Distinguished Book Award, Honorable Mention

“Barr’s book provides an insightful portrait of a community that failed to live up to its progressive reputation. It serves as both a poignant memoir of personal loss as well as a concise sociological study of the factors that undermined integration efforts in suburban Chicago as well as in other northern communities. America has never attained a truly color blind society where all people are treated equally, and Friends Disappear serves as a useful example, illustrating how conscious and unconscious actions prevented effective racial integration in Evanston.”

Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Table of Contents

Who’s Who on the Porch


1 Heavenston
2 A Salt-and-Pepper Mix
3 The Coffin Affair
4 Free to Roam
5 Bringing the Movement Home
6 Friends Disappear
7 Stuff for the Kids That Are Less Fortunate

Conclusion: Together Again, One Last Time



Midwest Sociological Society: MSS Distinguished Book Award
Honorable Mention

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