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Eliot Battle, Columbia educator involved in desegregation, dies

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 | 5:50 p.m. CDT; updated 9:45 a.m. CDT, Thursday, June 13, 2013
Columbia educator Eliot Battle died Tuesday night. He was 88. This gallery is a collection of photos of Battle through the years.

This story has been updated to include service information. The service will be held at 11 a.m. June 29 at Missouri United Methodist Church. A reception will follow at the church.

COLUMBIA — Although more than 400 miles separated them, sisters Donna Battle Pierce and Muriel "Jeanne" Browder both stressed the same thing when asked about their father: You couldn't have Eliot without Muriel. What they accomplished, they accomplished together.

"They were a really amazing team," Pierce said. "The things they did they did because they were a team."

That team integrated Columbia schools. It served the community. It brought neighborhoods together, helping Columbians begin to realize the importance of diversity.

And when Muriel Battle died in 2003, Eliot Battle kept up the effort.

"My father was an exceptional man and a smart guy, but he waved the women's rights flag higher and stronger than any of them," Browder said. "He pushed Mother to achieve every dream educationally that she wanted."

Eliot Battle, a Columbia educator for more than 40 years, died Tuesday night, June 11, 2013, Columbia Public Schools confirmed Wednesday morning. He had been hospitalized since a car accident Friday morning.

According to Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Latisha Stroer, Mr. Battle was involved in a one-vehicle accident about 8 a.m. Friday at Rollins Road and Eastlake Drive. His car was westbound on Rollins when it left the south side of the street. Mr. Battle was the only person in the car and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Mr. Battle, 88, was an educator in Columbia Public Schools from the late 1950s until he retired in 1991. Originally from Mobile, Ala., he moved to Columbia after being offered a job as assistant principal of Douglass School in 1956. He then became the first black faculty member at Hickman High School in 1960 and helped end segregation in the district.

Grant Elementary School was the first school to be integrated, and Battle's children were the first black students to attend what had been an all-white school. Pierce said her parents worried but also were very excited about a future that would be integrated.

Eliot and Muriel Battle integrated neighborhoods in Columbia and received hateful letters. Pierce said her father told her that the people who reacted hatefully were  frightened of change.

"They don't understand, and they are afraid," Mr. Battle told Pierce. "We have to live our lives and do the best we can, and if they knew better, they would do better."

"My dad believed in quietly doing the things that had to be done," Pierce said. "I don't think it was until I was an adult and a mom that I understood that he had a quiet strength and that he was determined, and that was probably the most remarkable thing about him."

Browder, who has lived with her father for the past 18 months, said that time was her biggest gift. She wanted to be with her dad, and she said she felt more blessed than he was to have that opportunity.

"One thing that I love is that I was given my father's eyes," Browder said. "I have his physical eyes, but not those that always saw good in everything around him. I did not have the eyes that always focused on hope."

She repeated more than once, sitting on her living room couch, that she did not want to grieve. Grieving is selfish, she said, and it's just for us. What we should be doing, she said, is celebrating his life and recognizing that Columbia was so blessed that Eliot Battle called it his home.

Browder speaks with her whole self; her vibrant smile and storytelling interrupted only by her hand occasionally brushing her eye. It's easy to see why she could barely sit for 10 minutes without receiving a phone call or knock on the door from people offering their condolences — she and her family are well-loved in this community.

A service will be held at 11 a.m. June 29 at Missouri United Methodist Church. A reception will follow at the church.

Columbia's new high school, Muriel Williams Battle High School, was named in honor of Mr. Battle's wife, who died in 2003. At the dedication of the new school, Mr. Battle received a standing ovation for almost a minute before and after speaking.

"Our family has always reached for the top, reached for the best and the school district reached for the top, in this instance, and reached for the best," Mr. Battle said after the ceremony.

The last item on Mr. Battle's bucket list was to see the ribbon cutting of Battle High School, Browder said. He wanted to be there to welcome the students.

"I'm going to be around to watch that school open," he told Pierce. And he was.

Mr. Battle served as a guidance counselor and administrator during his career. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree from MU on Dec. 18, 2009. The honorary degree is given for government and public service or pre-eminence in any field.

Mr. Battle's father was a prominent businessman in the Mobile, Ala., black community and his family had multiple generations of college-educated people.

He established the Continuing Education Center Program at Douglass High School in 1967. He was also elected president of the Missouri Guidance Association and served on the Columbia College Board of Trustees. He wrote the book "A Letter to Young Black Men," which was published in 1997.

His many accomplishments aside, Pierce said she'll never forget how kind her father was. She remembers a time when her family was driving back from Jefferson City in their station wagon. From the car, they saw a family stranded on the side of the road, clearly having car trouble.

She said her father stopped the car, invited the parents and children from the other family into their car and paid for them to stay in a motel. While they got the car fixed, Mr. Battle had the family help weed the Battle's garden at their Ash Street home. And when the car was ready, he paid for that, too.

"My parents were both educators and raising four kids and didn't have a lot of money," Pierce said. "I don't know where the money came from."

When she asked her father why he stopped to help, he replied: "This is a family like we are, and we help each other."

She likes to think the young boy with the other family remembers what her father did and stopped to help someone else in the same way.

"My dad set that example for how people should live their lives," Pierce said.

"What everyone thought Eliot Battle was, he was," Browder said. "He lived the most authentic life, and he was the most authentic self."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

 


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