Couple Fought Segregation in Columbia

1 decade 3 years 7 months ago Tuesday, February 21 2006 Feb 21, 2006 Tuesday, February 21, 2006 4:39:53 PM CST February 21, 2006 in News

Eliot Battle began teaching at Douglass High School in 1956, when it was an all-black school and the Columbia school district was slowly desegregating. The school closed in 1960, and the district sent Battle to teach at Hickman High School.

"I was transferred there, as well as the first black to be employed on a professional level in the Columbia Public Schools," he remembered.

Former Superintendent Jim Ritter believes Battle's outlook on life helped him become a successful teacher.

"He never did see the color lines. He treated everyone exactly the same," recalled Ritter. "And I think, very quickly, students recognized that fact and, as a result, didn't see him as an African-American."

Battle retired from the Columbia School District in 1991, then worked six years at Columbia College.

He also didn't accept racial lines at home. When he and his wife, Muriel, moved to Columbia, they lived in an all-black part of town. Real estate agents wouldn't show them houses in white areas until Battle took matters into his own hands.

"We located three or four houses in the city that were for sale by owner and it created a furor in town," said Battle. "There were persons who were upset that a black family had the, I guess the courage, they felt like it was the nerve, to infiltrate an area that had been heretofore all white."

The Battles moved into a house on Crown Point in 1963, making them the first blacks to move into an all-white neighborhood in Columbia. At that time, black people couldn't go to restaurants in town. Nearly all of the city's black people lived in the central part of Columbia, which was considered their community.

Battle credits his success to his wife. Muriel Battle had a 40-year career in Columbia Public Schools, including principal at West Junior High and associate superintendent for the district. She died in 2003.

"I believe that beside every successful man, there is a successful woman," explained Eliot. "And beside me for 62 years was Muriel."

Battle now spends his time distributing copies of his book to inspire young, black men. He hasn't given up being a teacher and still teaches through correspondence courses.

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