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Sociologist Jerry Carr Remembered as Committed Teacher, Scholar and Activist

By David Simpson

Jerry Carr got an early glimpse of racial harmony as a white kid growing up in the Midwest in the 1940s. In his neighborhood, Black and white children played and learned together.

That positive experience stayed with him years later as he protested in the streets of the segregated South. And it lingered as he embarked on a career in academia, teaching courses like Social Stratification and Black/White Relations.

Leslie G. "Jerry" Carr, a tireless social activist and an associate professor emeritus of sociology at Old Dominion University, died on July 1 at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was 86. Carr taught at ODU from 1979 until his retirement in 2002.

The ODU community remembered him as a supportive colleague devoted to his discipline, his students and the fight against inequality.

"Dr. Carr was a brilliant and kind professor, person and friend, and I cannot express enough what a profound impact he had on me both academically and personally," said Charles Gray, a University Distinguished Master Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice.

They met when Gray took Carr's Sociological Theory course as an undergraduate in the fall of 1996.

"Through his teachings, I found both an intellectual grounding and a purpose for my academic pursuits," Gray said. "His teaching and willingness to discuss all things related in the classroom opened my eyes and mind for the first time to issues of stratification and inequality in our society."

Over time, they became friends.

"When I later began my teaching career at ODU, he helped me more than I can say in terms of preparation, content and delivery."

Austin Jersild, a professor in the Department of History, likewise remembers that Carr was "especially supportive and encouraging to young faculty members and their families."

Carr had many interests. But as Jersild pointed out, it was social inequality that animated much of Carr's scholarly life.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1936, Carr grew up in a working-class family, an opinionated boy with curly red hair. In the park he would play with both Black and white children. They went to the same schools.

Much of the following account is based on his unpublished memoir, his obituary and materials provided by the family:

Before starting high school, he accepted an invitation to live with his wealthy, childless uncle and aunt in Decatur, Alabama. To the boy, Alabama was an unrecognizable world. He went to an all-white public school, visited the country club his relatives belonged to, and later enrolled at the all-white University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

His uncle paid the cost for a year or so but lost his job, leaving no money for tuition. Now out of school, Carr received a draft notice and served in the U.S. Navy, afterward returning to the Tuscaloosa campus to continue his sociology studies on the GI Bill.

Most of the old departmental faculty members were gone, replaced by young men who talked about new, even radical ideas. What's more, the civil rights movement was unfolding before his eyes.

"A switch in my brain that had never been used simply turned on," Carr wrote in his memoir. "I began to get a grasp on the world I was living in ... [and] I had a passion to learn all I could."

In 1963, he watched Gov. George Wallace temporarily block an Alabama auditorium doorway as two Black students tried to enter. The next year, Carr started going to civil rights demonstrations, often one of the few whites participating. He saw the Ku Klux Klan and the police violently attack protesters.

"By the end of the summer, I understood 'the Southern way of life,'" he wrote. "The movement had cracked it open for all to see what it was. Of course, I was beginning to understand that it wasn't just the South; there were terrible things about the whole country, much worse than I had ever imagined."

A goal took shape in his mind.

"I wanted to be a professor now, this new kind of professor who taught things that mattered, did things that mattered, and changed people's lives for the better. Especially, I wanted to contribute to the struggle against racism."

After completing a Master of Arts at Alabama, he entered the Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While there, he joined the activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and worked to overturn the state's notorious speaker ban. He drove to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1966 to meet the end of the James Meredith March Against Fear. He engaged in local protests against the Vietnam War and organized the North Carolina contingent for the 1967 March on the Pentagon, where soldiers used tear gas on the crowd.

"We escaped, but I couldn't see well for several hours," Carr recalled. "I will always remember the incredible power, joy and anger in that great sea of people."

In 1968, Dow Chemical, the maker of napalm, came to UNC to recruit. In protest, Carr and other SDS members entered the building where the Dow campaign was set up. They were arrested and jailed. In court, they pleaded no contest, paid a fine and got probation.

By this time, Carr was on the FBI's radar. Years later, he would request a copy of his file, which he donated to the UNC archives.

His teaching career took him to Chico State, Guilford College - where he met his future life partner, Janice Kohl - the University of Akron and, finally, Old Dominion.

At ODU, he taught both undergraduate and graduate students. He wrote dozens of articles and papers on topics ranging from social science research methodology to racism and the plight of the poor. He directed the University's Institute for the Study of Minority Issues from 1985 to 1988. In 1997, Sage Publications released his book "'Color-Blind' Racism."

While in Norfolk, he fought the resegregation of the city's elementary schools and the displacement of poor people from low-income housing. He also worked with Kohl's cause, the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, particularly its reproductive freedom task force.

"I called myself the Men's Auxiliary, but I was usually the only member of that group," he wrote.

In 2001, he began having trouble climbing stairs. Quadruple bypass surgery came a few months later. Carr retired from the University in the following spring. In 2011, when Kohl retired, they moved to Chapel Hill.

There, he continued to voice his opinions, firing off letters to the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer about the need to rename buildings and monuments at UNC honoring slaveholders and Klansmen.

Carr was more than the sum of his teaching, research and political activism. He was also a boater, woodworker, photographer, gardener and lover of life.

"Jerry really was a Renaissance man, at home in history (he was an avid amateur archaeologist), the arts (he took some truly breathtaking photos) and political activism," Sebastian Kuhn wrote in an email. "He took great pride (justifiably) in his garden."

Kuhn, a professor in ODU's Department of Physics, befriended Carr during their teaching days, and their families became close.

"Jerry also enjoyed the finer things in life," Kuhn wrote. "Once, we watched the movie 'Sideways' together and decided to re-enact a Virginia version, with a weeklong trip to vineyards in the Blue Ridge Mountain region."

After Carr and Kohl moved to Chapel Hill, Kuhn and his wife visited them as often as they could.

"Until the very end," Kuhn wrote, "we would enjoy Jerry's newest photos, his insights into local and global politics, and his recollections of a truly amazing life."

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