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Arvarh Strickland dies at age 82

Strickland taught at MU for 26 years.

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A white ribbon sits on the sign outside of Strickland Hall on Thursday. Arvarh Strickland, MU's first tenured African-American professor, died Tuesday at age 82.

Lauren Kastner/Senior Staff Photographer

May 3, 2013

Colleagues of Arvarh Strickland, MU's first tenured African-American professor, remembered him Wednesday as a humble yet visionary professor who played an integral role in transforming the culture of the university.

Strickland, who taught at MU for 26 years and continued to support the university as a professor emeritus during his retirement, died Tuesday. He was 82.

Deputy Chancellor Mike Middleton, MU's first African-American law professor and a former MU student, said Strickland was as a patient mentor who always had words of advice for those new to academia.

"He had this way of calming your insecurities, encouraging you to be successful and modeling the ways to interact with people so you could have success," Middleton said. "You can't say enough about the character of the man and the dignity with which he carried himself."

In addition to being an academic, Strickland was a family man who was married to his wife, Willie, for more than 50 years and cared for his two sons, Duane and Bruce.

Strickland broke racial barriers when he joined the MU faculty as its first black professor in 1969. He previously taught at Chicago State College, a predominantly white university in Chicago's diverse South Side.

Strickland brought the first black history courses to MU when he came to teach. The classes quickly grew so popular among students that they were frequently over-enrolled, according to the MU News Bureau.

Strickland taught, mentored and coached countless African-American historians through their doctoral degrees, Middleton said. MU's history department remains one of the leaders in granting degrees to African-American students, History Department Chair Russell Zguta said. Many graduates have gone on to become professors themselves.

"I think his real legacy is the students that he touched," Middleton said. "The legacy really spreads far beyond Mizzou."

Before MU

Arvarh Strickland was born in the racially segregated Hattiesburg, Miss., on July 6, 1930. He was raised largely by his mother and grandparents after his father's alcoholism crippled his parents' marriage.

He attended the historically-black Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., graduating in 1951. After several years as a teacher and principal in segregated schools, Strickland received a master's degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and went on to become one of the school's first African-American doctoral degree recipients in 1962.

In 1968, six years after Strickland received his doctorate, the MU Legion of Black Collegians presented MU with a list of demands, one of which was to hire a black professor. MU's answer to the demands was to begin a search for a fully-tenured black professor.

Impressed by Strickland's credentials as a teacher, professor and published author, MU recruited Strickland in 1969.

"Everyone was impressed by Arvarh, as I recall," Middleton, an LBC member and law student at MU in 1968, said. "From the day he came, everyone who encountered him was just so taken with him."

Strickland's legacy at MU extended far beyond the classes he taught and students he impacted. He pressured the university to recruit more black faculty and administrators and assisted the chancellor with recruitment in 1972. He also served as a consultant to different departments hoping to increase diversity.

"He wanted this university to reflect this country and this world," Middleton said. "That was one of his passions."

Even as MU hired more minority faculty, Strickland was reluctant to praise the university. Instead, he pushed MU to go further, saying there were always ways to increase diversity. Middleton recalled that even when Strickland had criticism, he always delivered it in his signature gentle but authoritative manner.

"He did it in such a kind and gentle way that people could take it," Middleton said. "People would understand."

Beyond the faculty

Even when Strickland served in administrative capacities, including two stints as interim director of the Black Studies Program, Zutga said Strickland's heart was always with the history department.

"Arvarh was one of us, as a faculty member," Zutga said. "That came naturally to him, not to separate himself as an administrator from where he felt his real home lay — that was in the history department."

Outside of MU, Strickland also took an interest in the greater Columbia community. He helped found a youth development network for minority men, and Middleton recalled that Strickland was able to strike up a conversation with just about anyone.

"He was everything, and he did everything well," Middleton said.

Toward the end of his career, Strickland began to receive awards for his lifetime of teaching. MU awarded him its Byler Distinguished Professor Award and the St. Louis American's Educator of the Year Award in 1994. He was placed in Tugaloo College's Alumni Hall of Fame in 1995 and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gave him its Alumni Achievement Award in 1997.

He received distinguished service awards from the State Historical Society of Missouri and Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society and was also recognized by the Association for the Study of African-American History and Culture.

In 2007, MU renamed the General Classroom Building as Arvarh E. Strickland Hall after the LBC released a new list of demands in 2005. The 2005 list was meant to echo and modernize the 1968 demands, and included a demand that MU name a building after a prominent African-American figure. The Missouri Students Association and the Residence Halls Association quickly passed resolutions backing the demand.

MU appointed a committee to meet the demand, and tossed around a number of possible names for a building. The committee quickly realized Strickland was the natural choice.

"Arvarh was on the list, and it turned out to be a no-brainer," Middleton said. "That building had to be named Arvarh E. Strickland Hall. Everyone understood that that was the only logical thing to do."

Middleton said the building's new name meant more to Strickland than any of his other accolades.

"He was really, really proud of that," Middleton said. "I think it was because the university was recognizing how we felt about him as a community. And I think that really touched him more than any of the awards he's gotten from various historical societies."

Despite opportunities to move elsewhere, Strickland remained devoted to MU until his retirement in 1996.

"He really did love this university," Middleton said. "He came in '69 and he did not leave, and he had all kinds of opportunities to go anywhere in the world, because he was that well-known."

Visitation for Strickland will be 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Missouri United Methodist Church, 904 S. Ninth St. Services will be at 11 a.m. Burial will be at Memorial Park Cemetery, 1217 Business Loop 70 W.

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