Boxes of tissues lined the sanctuary of Missouri United Methodist Church on Saturday morning, but laughter frequently filled the air as family, friends and community members gathered to remember Columbia educator Eliot Battle.
Battle died in June from injuries sustained in a car accident, and he is most remembered for his role in desegregating Columbia’s public schools. The city’s newest high school is named after his wife.
Jim Ritter, now a retired Columbia Public Schools Superintendent, was a 23-year-old teacher at Hickman High School when Battle joined the staff as the school’s first African-American teacher.
“Thus began one of the most distinguished careers in the history of this community,” Ritter said.
He immediately looked to Battle as a mentor, and the two men worked together for many years.
Columbia’s schools were officially integrated in 1954, but at the time Battle was hired, there were very few African American students who went there, and other parts of Columbia – such as restaurants and theatres – were still segregated. Ritter spoke with admiration of the whole Battle family for their courage and determination.
Several speakers made reference to Battle’s common response to people asking him how he was doing: “Super.”
“No doubt, he is my hero – he is my Superman,” said Pat Battle Shirley, his niece.
“You keep your feet firmly on the ground, so that we have room to soar. You hold your arms out wide, so that we always have a safe place to land,” she said. “You might not have known this at the time, but it was you who taught us how to fly.”
One of the biggest lessons Carolyn Battle Thomas, the middle Battle daughter, learned from both of her parents was to go after her dreams – not just to dream, but to do something to make those dreams a reality.
She left those gathered in the church with a call to action: “If each of us just takes a lesson that we got from him, and really commit to living it the way my father lived it then this church, Columbia, Missouri, the nation, the world will be a better place.”
Battle’s son, Eliot F. Battle Jr., thanked the people of Columbia for the their support of his father – particularly since the death of his mother.
“You so loved, so cared for, so respected my father,” he said. “Thank you.”
This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values.