Barr, Roberta Byrd (1919-1993)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 11/09/1998
  • Essay 306
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Roberta Byrd Barr was an African American educator, civil rights leader, actor, librarian, and television personality. She was born in Tacoma and lived for much of her life in Seattle. She was a talented, multifaceted personality with a calm presence, thoughtful demeanor, and a darkly melodious voice that served her well in the many roles she played in the community.

Actor and Educator

Roberta Byrd was born on January 4, 1919, in Tacoma. She attended Lincoln High School and then Wilberforce University in Ohio. She married Dr. James J. Byrd in 1950, lived in New Jersey, and gave birth to two sons. She returned to Seattle in 1959, and later earned a B.A. in Sociology and in Elementary Education and an M.A. in Librarianship at the University of Washington. She taught at Jefferson Elementary School and then became librarian at John Muir Elementary School. During the 1966 school boycott through which the Black community protested the lack of progress toward desegregation, she headed the Freedom School at the YMCA.

Her acting and television career began in the early 1960s when she starred in the Cirque Theatre production of Raisin in the Sun with Greg Morris (1933-1996), who is known for his role in TV's Mission Impossible. On KCTS/Channel 9, she told stories to young children in a show called Let's Imagine. Later she moderated the Program Face to Face on KING TV from 1965-1970 and from 1971-1972 on KCTS/9. The program was an audience participation show that featured guest speakers talking about controversial topics such as desegregation and welfare. She awakened the community to civil rights issues and other important topics overlooked in the media. She acted as a bridge between the Black and white communities.

In 1966, she married Albert R. Barr, a retired Army officer. That same year Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) appointed her to the State Board Against Discrimination. In 1968, she was appointed vice principal at Franklin High School after 150 students held a sit-in to protest the expulsion of Black female students who wore their hair natural. In 1973, she was appointed principal of Lincoln High School and became the first woman in the history of the Seattle Public Schools to head a high school.

She actively participated in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Seattle Urban League, and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Her picture hangs in the Douglass-Truth Public Library where her efforts, through her sorority, helped promote the development of the African American Collection.

Roberta Byrd Barr died on June 23, 1993.


"In loving memory. Funeral program"; Lily Eng, "Roberta Byrd Barr, Educator and Television Host, Dies at 74," The Seattle Times, June 25, 1993, p. B-1; "Roberta Byrd Barr -- Civil Rights Leader," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 30, 1993.

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