Muriel Battle (1930–2003)
Muriel Battle was an outstanding African-American educator and school administrator who worked and lived in Columbia, Missouri. She contributed her time, energy, and knowledge to improving education, civil rights, housing, and job opportunities for the citizens of Columbia.
Muriel Williams was born on January 23, 1930, in Mobile, Alabama. Her parents were Herschell and Juanita Davis Williams. Her father was editor of the Press Forum, a weekly newspaper, and her mother was a seamstress. Muriel grew up in the Deep South during the Great Depression, a period of economic hardship that lasted throughout the 1930s. Muriel recalled about her childhood that “education was the answer” for African Americans who wanted to improve their lives. “We grew up,” she said, “knowing we were going college.”
Education was a driving force throughout Muriel’s life. She graduated from Dunbar High School in Mobile, Alabama. She attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and earned a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama and in history from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.
Committed to Education
On June 28, 1950, Muriel married Eliot Battle, her teenage sweetheart and a fellow educator. Together they had four children: Donna, Carolyn, Muriel, and Eliot, Jr. The Battles moved to Columbia, Missouri, in 1956 to teach in the Columbia Public Schools. Muriel and Eliot became important pioneers in Columbia, leading the school district and the city through racial integration.
While teaching, Muriel continued her own education at the University of Missouri–Columbia where she earned a Master of Arts degree in secondary administration in 1976, a Specialist degree in 1980, and a Doctorate in general administration in 1983. She also received an honorary doctorate from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, a historically black college where she served as President of the Board of Trustees. She also served on the Board of Trustees for Stephens College in Columbia.
Muriel held many different positions in the Columbia Public Schools during her forty years of service. Starting in 1956, she worked as a teacher at Douglass Elementary School. When West Junior High opened in 1961, Muriel transferred there to teach social studies. She spent the next thirty years at West Junior. She became social studies department chairperson in 1974. She served as assistant principal from 1975 to 1978, and then as principal from 1979 to 1991. She went on to serve as Associate Superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, the first female to hold that position, from 1992 until her retirement in 1996.
A Productive Retirement
In her retirement, Muriel contributed significantly to her community. She formed the Battle Group, an education consulting firm that provided strategies and resources to school districts, PTAs, and juvenile justice facilities. In addition to numerous volunteer activities, Muriel dedicated time and money to building a memorial honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. After her death, the city of Columbia renamed the park area surrounding the King Memorial “Battle Gardens” in honor of Muriel and her family. In 2000, she and her husband were jointly awarded the Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Citizen of the Year.
A Columbia writer, Irene Haskins, once remarked that Muriel’s surname, “Battle,” was a fitting one. Muriel and her husband, wrote Haskins, “lived their lives quietly yet determined and unwavering in their battle against prejudice and racism. They managed to overcome the obstacles thrown in their way, all the while nurturing their children as well as thousands of other people’s children.”
An Inspiring Leader
Muriel Battle was a remarkable and dignified woman who inspired students, teachers, and fellow citizens to strive for excellence. She was highly intelligent, accomplished, optimistic, and interested in helping other people. She believed that “whether you plan a career, family, or both, in order to be good at anything, you have to feel good about yourself.” Her portrait hangs in the entrance of West Junior High along with her motto, “We’re Glad You’re Here.” She died at the age of 73 on March 2, 2003, after battling pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease. She donated her body to help advance medical research.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. 1: 26–27.
Haskins, Irene. “Memories of Muriel.” Columbia Daily Tribune. Thursday, March 13, 2003.