Aloma Barnes, author of Dunbar: The Neighborhood, The School, And The People 1940-1965
, is a retired nurse. Her book Dunbar
is a novel about the beginnings of Tucson and how early segregation took place. A second edition of the book is scheduled for release this month. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Can you talk a little more about the segregation and how it impacted Dunbar's community?
Well, Dunbar wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for the law that separated blacks and whites. The whole thing about having the school in Dunbar was so that blacks could attend. When people migrated there, they selected their homes based on the school—just like any parent would do now. Dunbar's neighborhood then grew up from that school.
What were some reactions you got from publishing Dunbar? Especially those who still live in the community.
If people weren't happy, I told them to pick up a pen and make it better. You throw a stone in a pond and it makes a ripple, is how I look at it. I write very simply and I've been told that people were happy about the book and that it was about time. People who still live there say it's as if "history came alive" and those comments are what make it worth it.
How has Dunbar changed since these segregated times?
It's a small neighborhood. Six blocks long, five blocks wide and used to be a mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Indians. But now, it's 98 percent white because of other places in town and because they can afford it. The Dunbar school is still standing but the original has been renovated on Second Street and 11th Avenue. The church is still there too. They're making a museum about Dunbar's history soon. They even have a dance studio and an active barbershop.
What inspired you to write Dunbar?
Well, I’m a retired nurse. I live in the Dunbar neighborhood so it kind of just fell in my lap and it seemed like it was time for a story like this to come. The school reunion happened in 2015 and I had begun my research for the book in 2013.
What did you find difficult about the research?
History of black people, there isn't much of it. I think of it like this, history of caucasian shells are all at the surface of the water but those black shells, you have to dig and dig and dig until you get seaweed-which isn't a shell. It was very difficult but I was talking to contacts from the reunion, finding clips from the library of Civil Rights movement news from back then and the book that Gloria Smith wrote about Dunbar. She's one heck of a researcher. But, I could only go back so far because the archives only started in 1965 so it was as if almost everything before that was lost. I couldn't even find many obituaries.
Do you wish you would have done anything differently now that you think of it?
I am not familiar with all the sites and fact-checking options. I would have hired a student to read it and fact check it with a critical eye. I relied on my own research and that was frustrating because when you are writing non-fiction, you need to make sure every fact, comma, just everything is correct. Otherwise it's not non-fiction.
How did you get ahold of all your sources?
The reunion people were still very active in the school. It happens every couple of years and they give out a booklet with everyone’s contact information. That is how I was able to get a hold of Morgan Maxwell Jr.—who is still alive and happened to be my first source. After talking to him, I was able to go from there and talk to others.
How long did it take you to write Dunbar?
I started writing in 2015. I had to do an outline. I knew I was talking about the school first and then went from there. I’ve learned that if one path is going wrong, you need to chose a different one and that happened to me a few times. I happened to bump into people in Marana at the time and that’s actually how Mrs. Maxwell appeared in the book too. But hey, I’m a rookie writer so at that time it all made sense to me.
If you were to describe Dunbar in just a few words, what would they be?
A glimpse into the life of the school, neighborhood, who lived there, what was happening during the 25 years that the book took place during. Really, just a snapshot.
Do you stay in touch with any of the sources mentioned in the book?
Some of them are right here in town still but a lot of them have passed on.
What was your favorite part about writing Dunbar?
Finishing it, there was so much that went into it, making sure it was perfect. It's almost like being pregnant, you have to care about the child in your stomach for nine months and that's how it was writing the book. It's not perfect but it's my first and for people who didn't like it, I encourage them to pick up a pen and paper and make it better. The most rewarding feeling was holding that copy in my hand.
Do you plan to make a second book?
I’m planning to write several books, but not about Dunbar. I hope someone can pick up where I left off and continue the story. With non-fiction, everything you put in the book must be a fact. Your fact-checks need to be backed up with a person or a book. Attribution is very important—I’ve added a few footnotes on some pages but mostly everyone is mentioned in the bibliography. I did this all on my own—didn’t have anyone help me but if I had known for the future, I would have someone who is familiar with fact-checking and have about one or two readers look at my work before publishing it. A historian that I look up to is Doris Kearns Goodwin—I like to tell a story and when you get anecdotal comments that helps move the story along and makes it easier to read.