Barbara Neely, Activist Turned Mystery Writer, Dies at 78

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She kept a diary and, her family recalled in the statement announcing her death, “demonstrated a vivid imagination, by making up stories from her daily experiences, developing into a young griot.”

She graduated in 1961 from a business school in Jamestown, N.Y., where she worked as a mother’s helper — the closest she came to being a maid — but only for two weeks.

“It was not work I was cut out for,” she said.

Without acquiring an undergraduate degree, she earned a master’s in urban and regional planning from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971 with a thesis that explored the potential benefits of placing women’s prisons in suburbia.

Even then, though, she told The Boston Globe, “I didn’t know an adjective from an adverb, and I didn’t know writers who weren’t starving.”

“If you grow up poor and black,” she said, “you know you can’t help your mother pay the mortgage by writing.”

Ms. Neely had become an activist by the time she was 19, when she helped organize a tutorial program in Philadelphia. In the 1970s and ’80s, she directed a Y.W.C.A. branch after she and her partner, Jeremiah Cotton, settled in North Carolina, where she also wrote for Southern Exposure magazine.

The couple moved to San Francisco and, finally, to Massachusetts, where Mr. Cotton taught at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Ms. Neely became the director of Women for Economic Justice, a welfare reform advocacy group.


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