The daughter of Ann Neely and Bernard Neely, Barbara Neely grew up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Although she lived in a neighborhood populated by loving members of her extended family, throughout her school years she was often the only African American child in her class. Both her grandmothers were important figures in Neely’s childhood, especially her maternal grandmother, a woman she describes as the matriarch of the family and who against all odds achieved financial success with her earnings as a domestic worker.
At the age of nineteen Neely moved to Philadelphia, where she began what was to become a lifetime of social activism. She became involved with the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History and helped organize the Philadelphia Tutorial Project. She came to believe that she could do more for her causes if she acquired a graduate degree. Although she had always enjoyed writing, it did not occur to her to enter a creative writing program, she later explained. Instead, she earned a master’s degree in urban studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her thesis proposed integrating women’s prisons into suburbs; after graduating she was employed as director of a women’s correction center in Pittsburgh, where she was able to help establish a women’s residential prison as she had envisioned in her thesis.
Over the next decades Neely held a series of jobs across the country—in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, California, and Massachusetts. These included stints as a Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) director and at Head Start, being a consultant for nonprofit ventures, and working at the Institute for Social Research, the African News Service, and Southern Exposure Magazine. She has been a director of Women for Economic Justice and helped found Women of Color for Reproductive Freedom. Neely has won several awards for her efforts to address social ills. In the 1980’s she and her partner moved to Jamaica Plain, near Boston, where she became the host of the radio program Commonwealth Journal. During this time Neely also began writing short stories, which have been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Neely incorporates her experiences as a social activist and her knowledge of different parts of the country into her novels: Blanche on the Lam and Blanche Passes Go are set in North Carolina; Blanche Cleans Up is set in Boston.