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Alumni Profile

Jackie Robinson of History

PhD pioneer and Urban League chronicler takes national award.

Arvarh Strickland

It’s been called the day Chicago “forgot her conscience,” and it all started with the hurling of a rock.

It was July 27, 1919, a time when Chicago beaches were segregated. But when an African American youth “strayed across the imaginary line dividing the ‘Negro’ and ‘white’ waters of Lake Michigan,” the boy was struck by a rock thrown by a white man and drowned, says LAS alum Arvarh Strickland in his book, History of the Chicago Urban League. The result was five days of rioting and the deaths of 38 people—the worst race riot in Illinois history. An additional 537 were injured and about 1,000 left homeless.

The Chicago Urban League, a fledgling African American organization at the time, stepped in to help, turning its office into a Red Cross distribution center, Strickland says. The League also communicated with the governor and mayor about ways to curb the rioting and served as a go-between for whites and blacks.

Strickland’s History of the Chicago Urban League, published in 1966, has been called the first history of a major African American organization. But Strickland has had a long history of “firsts.” He received his PhD in 1962, becoming the first African American to receive a doctorate in history at the University of Illinois. He also went on to become the first African American professor at the University of Missouri, where he taught its first black history course.

It’s little wonder that he has sometimes been called the Jackie Robinson of history.

In honor of these and other contributions to African American history, Strickland was recently given the prestigious John W. Blassingame Award, presented by the Southern Historical Association.

Strickland grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., and he did his undergraduate work at Tougaloo College near Jackson, Miss., where he was drawn to history by the renowned professor of black history, August Meier.

“It was somewhat ironic that I became devoted to African American history through my encounter with this white historian,” he says.

After working in schools in Mississippi and Alabama, Strickland set his sights on a PhD, bringing him to Champaign-Urbana. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the campus community did not seem much different from the South. He remembers being unwelcome to stroll inside a campus drugstore to sit down to eat. Instead, he was served through a window, specially designated for black students—what few black students there were on campus.

“Many black folks passed around areas where you knew you were not welcome,” he says. Finding a place to live was also an issue because there wasn’t much in the way of student housing “and landlords were free to do what they wanted.” What many of them wanted was not to rent to African Americans.

After receiving his PhD from Illinois, Strickland taught seven years at Chicago State College; and it was during this period that he published his History of the Chicago Urban League.

According to Strickland, when the Chicago Urban League had its genesis in late 1916 and early 1917, “Chicago conditions were in a state of flux.” The war in Europe stopped the flow of immigrant labor, creating a labor shortage in the North at a time when industry was expanding to meet wartime demands. This labor shortage brought a flood of African American migrants from the South into the promised land of Chicago, fostering “new and intensified problems in race relations.”

The Urban League’s goal was to help African American migrants adjust to urban life in the North. But after the war, as white soldiers returned to Chicago, the result was a “maelstrom of social and political readjustment.” Adding to the combustible mix were labor disputes, in which African American workers were sometimes brought in as strikebreakers.

All of these tensions set the stage for the infamous day in 1919, when Chicago witnessed its worst race riot in history.

The Chicago Urban League has changed with the times, he says. But Strickland also saw dramatic changes in his own life only a few years after he published the League’s history. In 1969, when he joined the Missouri staff, he found there had been a sea change in the campus environment.

“Students were remaking the world,” he says. “It was the students who were saying that the university had to hire African American faculty members and admit more African American students.”

As Strickland began teaching at Missouri, a rumor started circulating that, ironically, dispelled any notion that black history would be an easy-A, cakewalk course. According to the rumor, Strickland flunked both his wife and son, who had taken the course.

“I didn’t correct the rumor until I was ready to retire,” he says.

Strickland’s retirement came in 1995, but his name remains highly visible on the Missouri campus, for one of the teaching buildings was named after him in 2007. Once again, it was another first—the first Missouri building named after an African American.

“What made me most proud about the renaming of the building was that it was something the students asked for,” he says. “Students I had not even taught cared that much.”

By Doug Peterson
January 2011