Arvarh Strickland was a force for change at MU and in Columbia

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 | 7:49 p.m. CDT; updated 11:54 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 2, 2013
Arvarh Strickland, MU's first African-American professor, is shown in a 1990 photograph.

COLUMBIA — When longtime friends and colleagues talked Wednesday about Arvarh Strickland's accomplishments at MU and in Columbia, they used words such as distinguished, level-headed and dignified.

For Eliot Battle, the loss is great. Battle co-founded the Minority Men's Network with Strickland and was the first African-American faculty member at Hickman High School.


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"I miss him already," Battle said. "It's like losing a brother."

Strickland was a force for change at MU and in Columbia. The first black professor at MU and a lifelong advocate for minority hiring in higher education died Tuesday morning at age 82.

Strickland was an honored professor and administrator. In 1995, he received the Alumni Association's Distinguished Faculty Award. When he retired after 26 years with the university in January 1996, a meeting room in the Memorial Student Union was dedicated to him. He was also a trustee for The State Historical Society of Missouri.

After retirement, Strickland co-authored a book, “The African-American Experience: An Historiographical and Bibliographical Guide,” with Robert Weems Jr.

The university established the Arvarh E. Strickland Distinguished Professorship of African-American History and Culture in 1999. And in 2007, MU honored his impact on campus by naming a building after him.

"I think his real legacy is the students he touched," MU Deputy Chancellor Mike Middleton said at a news conference Wednesday at Jesse Hall. "It really goes beyond MU."

From Mississippi to Missouri

Arvarh Strickland was born on July 6, 1930, in Hattiesburg, Miss.

His father wasn’t involved in his life, and he was primarily raised by his mother and her parents.

Strickland graduated summa cum laude from the historically black Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., in 1951.

He married Willie Elmore a couple weeks after graduation, excluding him from the draft for a few years. The couple had two sons: Duane and Bruce.

After teaching at a black high school in Hattiesburg, Strickland began attending the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana for his master's degree in 1953.

Around this time, the draft board changed its mind about Strickland's deferment because of increasing pressure from the Korean War. Strickland served two years, spending most of his time in Maryland.

After serving in the military, he returned to the University of Illinois, where he received his doctorate in 1962.

Soon after, he began teaching at Chicago State University on the south side of Chicago where he became an active member of the predominantly African-American community.

In 1969, MU hired Strickland to teach a few courses in black history, and he became the first African-American professor at the university. Soon after, he met Battle.

"We were both from the South; I was from Alabama and he was from Mississippi," Battle said. "We had a lot in common and fell in line as friends."

In the fall of 1970, Russ Zguta, the current chair of MU's History Department, met Strickland after Zguta returned from Helsinki from a research scholarship. His first impression of Strickland was his sense of humor and compassion.

"He would forever tease me about the weather here saying, 'If you think the weather is nasty here, just think what January was like in Finland,'" Zguta said.

After a couple years, Strickland was named the special assistant to then-Chancellor Herbert W. Schooling, for the recruitment of minority group instructors. The position was supposed to lead to an increase in the hiring of minority faculty members at the university.

From 1980 to 1983, Strickland was the chair of the MU History Department. Despite his administrative role, Zguta said the professors considered him "one of us."

After Strickland came to MU, Zguta said the university built a niche for African-American history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Middleton, who became the first African-American law professor in 1985, remembers his advice as "always right on point." 


Throughout his career, Strickland criticized the university for its reluctance to hire and promote more black professors. 

"You have not availed yourself of the diversity and broadened perspective which black faculty members can bring" to these positions, he told an MU chancellor in 1978. 

Strickland also advocated for aid to black students through his work on the Ethnic Minorities Committee. "I hope we are about to make a leap," he told the Missourian in 1978.

"He had a big impact on the university and Columbia," his son Duane Strickland said. "He attracted a lot of talented people here."

After resolutions from the Legion of Black Collegians, Missouri Students Association and Residence Halls Association, the UM System Board of Curators voted to rename the General Classroom Building to Strickland Hall in 2007.

"I think that really touched him," Middleton said. "He really did love this university."

"He came in '69, and he did not leave," he said. "And he had all types of opportunities to go anywhere in the world because he was that well-known. But he liked the University of Missouri, and he was proud of what he was able to do here." 

In a video shown before the building's dedication in 2007, Strickland said: "And so what I did was to stay here and try to fight to see that other African-Americans who came on the faculty and as staff would not have to refight those battles."

Strickland is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Willie; his sons Duane and Bruce and their families; and a great-granddaughter, Pearl. He is also survived by many friends and MU faculty members.

A visitation will be at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. Ninth St. Services will take place at 11 a.m. Interment will follow at Memorial Park Cemetery, 1217 Business Loop 70 W.


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