Educator Roberta Byrd Barr Dies At 74 -- TV Host, Principal Had Key Community Role
Roberta Byrd Barr, a Seattle educator and television personality who woke the city up to the civil rights movement with a provocative television show, died Wednesday after an extended illness. She was 74.
Ms. Byrd, who was African American, was Seattle's first woman high-school principal. She was the host of "Face to Face," an audience-participation show that featured guest speakers talking about explosive topics such as desegregation and welfare.
It often questioned why whites and blacks were divided.
Long before Oprah Winfrey dominated the airwaves, Ms. Byrd opened the local channels to ordinary people who had something to say. She interviewed guests such as United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, who were pegged as being too audacious for mainstream TV and were shunned by other shows.
She started her TV career by reading stories for young children. She became a show host after she turned the tables on television producer Jean Walkinshaw during an interview on a program about interesting woman.
"She was very outspoken and passionate about what she believed in," said Walkinshaw, who produced "Face to Face" and was a close friend. "She was abrasive to some and brutally honest to others. She woke up the community to all kinds of things that had been overlooked."
The show lasted for seven seasons, first on KCTS and then on KING. Local television columnists called the program a "must see."
Not only did people watch Ms. Byrd, they listened, too to her smoky, gravelly voice. Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson once wrote that he could listen to her read a telephone book.
Outside the camera's view, Ms. Byrd, who started her teaching career in 1960, first taught at Jefferson Elementary and later was librarian at John Muir.
She prodded school administrators into creating equal opportunities for African-American students. When the black community launched a school boycott to protest the lack of progress toward desegregation, she headed the Freedom School at the YMCA.
She was vice principal at Franklin High School and, in 1973, became head of Lincoln High as the district's first woman high-school principal.
"She held my feet to the fire and kept them there," said Forbes Bottomly, who was school superintendent from 1965-'73, during some of the most explosive racial times in the Seattle district. There were sits-in and walk-outs and disturbing questions about discrimination.
Bottomly appointed Ms. Byrd vice principal at Franklin High School after 150 students held a sit-in in March 1968, to protest the expulsion of black female students who wore their hair natural.
At the time, Larry Gossett, now executive director of the Central Area Motivation Program, was a junior at the University of Washington. He helped the high-school students make their demands to the administration.
He remembers Ms. Byrd as a compassionate educator who became a bridge between the African-American community and the white establishment.
Ms. Byrd and principal Frank Hanawalt were credited for helping the school community rebuild trust.
"There was nothing superficial about Roberta and people respected her for that," Bottomly said.
"She gave me some of the most valuable advice I ever had," Bottomly said. "She made me listen and kept me honest."
She is survived by two sons, Robert King Byrd and Joseph Charles Byrd, two grandchildren and two nieces. A private memorial service will be held Monday. Donations may be sent to the Roberta Byrd Barr Scholarship Fund at the African American Alliance.
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