Margaret Garb, 1962-2018

Scholar of race and urban history remembered

January 17, 2019

A leading scholar of race and urban history has died.

Margaret Garb was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1962 but brought up in Pennsylvania. Both her parents were politically active: her father, a judge, was deeply committed to prison reform, and her mother was involved in the fight for reproductive rights.

Taking an unusual route into the academy, Professor Garb studied cookery at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, and, after a first degree in comparative religion at the University of Vermont, she worked as a crime reporter in Chicago and then for leading publications such as The New York Times. She secured a master’s in history at the University of California, San Diego, and a doctorate from Columbia University in New York, where she studied with the political historian Eric Foner. In 2001, she joined the faculty at Washington University in St Louis, where she became professor of history.

Building on her radical background, Professor Garb taught courses on the American city, poverty and social reform. She also wrote a number of books on related themes, notably City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform, Chicago 1871-1919 (2005) and Freedom’s Ballot: African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration (2014).

It was also in 2014 that Professor Garb joined forces with drama professor Robert Henke to set up the Prison Education Project at the medium-security Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. She herself taught a survey course on “freedom, citizenship and the making of American culture”.

“We have a problem in America with mass incarceration,” she said at the time, adding that she was keen to use the skills that she had developed as a teacher to “improve the society we live in”. Not only did “a liberal arts education help you see the world differently”, but “transforming one person – whether it’s a student on a college campus or someone in prison – also transforms their family and community”.

Courses on the PEP, the only programme of its kind to be fully funded by a university, have now grown from two to 19 per semester, with the first graduation ceremony scheduled for May.

Professor Garb recently held fellowships at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Collegium de Lyon in France, although illness prevented her from taking up a Fulbright fellowship to study in the Philippines. She died of cancer on 15 December 2018 and is survived by her husband Mark Pegg, also a professor of history at Washington University in St Louis, and her daughter Eva.

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