Willard Badgett Gatewood Jr. (1931–2011)

Willard Badgett Gatewood Jr. was a nationally recognized scholar and longtime professor of history at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). He also served briefly as chancellor of the university. Gatewood was the author of numerous books, most dealing with African-American and southern history.

Willard B. Gatewood was born on February 23, 1931, on a farm on the Park Springs Road in Caswell County, North Carolina. His parents were Willard B. Gatewood, who was a tobacco farmer, and Bessie Pryor Gatewood. He received his BA, MA, and PhD in history at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He began his college teaching career at East Tennessee State University in 1957, and it was there that he met his future wife, Mary Lu Brown; they wed in 1958. The couple had a son, Bill, and a daughter, Ellis. Gatewood later served on the history faculties at East Carolina University, North Carolina Wesleyan College, and the University of Georgia. While at Georgia, he received the Michael Research Award and Joseph Parks Award for Excellence in teaching, and he directed ten PhD dissertations.

Gatewood began teaching at the University of Arkansas in 1970 as the first Alumni Distinguished Professor of History, a chair endowed by the Arkansas Alumni Association. He occupied this chair until his retirement in 1998. During his time at UA, Gatewood was a co-founder of the University of Arkansas Press, served as chancellor of the university (1984–1985), taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, and directed twenty-five PhD dissertations. One observer noted that Gatewood’s work with graduate students “remains the cornerstone on which the current success of Arkansas’s PhD program in history rests.” Many of his PhD students went on to become professors at colleges and universities around the country.

During his career at UA, Gatewood won most of the major awards that the university granted to professors, including the University Distinguished Research Award (1980) and the Chancellor’s Medal for Distinguished Service (1994). He was the author, co-author, or editor of fourteen books and more than seventy-five articles in scholarly journals. Several of his major books were pioneering works in African-American history; one, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 (University of Arkansas Press, 1990), was nominated for the National Book Award. He served as president of the Southern Historical Association in 1986–1987.

In addition to his service to UA and the history community, Gatewood was also active in the affairs of Fayetteville and the state of Arkansas. He was a founding board member of the Fayetteville Community Foundation and the Walton Arts Center Council and served as a member of the board of directors of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Arkansas Humanities Council. He was an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville.

Gatewood retired and took emeritus status in 1998. In 2002, the University of Arkansas Press published The Southern Elite and Social Change: Essays in Honor of Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., a series of essays by Gatewood’s colleagues and former students. In the introduction to the book, the editors noted, “There will be, no doubt, other great teachers and scholars. But all who contributed to this volume are certain that Dr. Willard B. Gatewood Jr. is a profound teacher and scholar. We owe our abiding enthusiasm and respect for history to him.”

Willard Gatewood died on October 23, 2011.

For additional Information:
Finley, Randy, and Thomas A. DeBlack, eds. The Southern Elite and Social Change: Essays in Honor of Willard B. Gatewood, Jr. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002.

Obituary of Willard B. Gatewood Jr. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 26, 2011, p. 9B.

“Willard Gatewood, Former Chancellor, Distinguished Professor of History, Dies.” University of Arkansas Newswire, October 25, 2011. http://newswire.uark.edu/articles/17079/willard-gatewood-former-chancellor-distinguished-professor-of-history-dies (accessed October 6, 2021).

Thomas A. DeBlack
Arkansas Tech University


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