Whether it was teaching students in his classroom or challenging the administration at the University of Texas, John Warfield lived life as an unapologetic crusader for racial and social justice, family and colleagues said Friday.
Warfield died Thursday of Parkinson's disease. He was 71 and had been residing at an assisted living facility in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Friends and family said Warfield left a lasting imprint on the university by helping to ease racial tensions left over from the 1960s and by igniting pride and instilling knowledge in his students.
Believing that education was the best way to derail segregation, he helped found Austin's first black community radio station, KAZI-FM, from his living room in 1982.
"There was just something burning in him always," said Jan Warfield, his former wife, who was married to him for 31 years. "He had the privilege of an education and someone looking out for him, so that's something he wanted to see other African Americans have. He was just adamant about it."
Warfield taught at the university for 26 years and was director of the Center for African and African American Studies there from 1973 to 1986.
In that position, he was sometimes a controversial figure, responsible for bringing guest speakers like Eldridge Cleaver, a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, to campus, He often accused the university administration of racism, using some of his most pointed words after he was asked to resign as director of the center in 1986.
"Somebody may have gotten fed up with Warfield's mouth," he told the Daily Texan student newspaper after his resignation was requested.
Warfield was also outspoken about the small number of black students and faculty at a time when the university had just been integrated, said Edmund T. Gordon, a former colleague and co-director of the center..
"This was in an era of some tension and great change when there weren't many black folks on campus, and there still was a fair amount of controversy over our presence," Gordon said.
As a professor, Warfield helped start the Heman Sweatt Symposium, an annual summit to examine the state of African Americans in Texas. The summit was named in honor of Heman Sweatt, the first African American admitted into UT Law School. Sweatt applied for admission in 1946, but he was denied on the basis of race. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
Warfield was also instrumental in making African and African American history a "legitimate and academic pursuit," said Gregory Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement at the University.
"That's what was so pivotal," Vincent said. "I think that's one of his legacies."
Former student James Gray, who is a radio programmer at KAZI, said he first met War-field in 1981, when he took his class on black American culture. At the time, Warfield was trying to start a community radio station.
Gray said Warfield's intention was to create a medium to educate both the black and majority communities.
Jan Warfield she and her then-husband stored radio equipment in their living room, until the station opened in 1982. She said they often paid bills for the station before paying their own.
Warfield was diagnosed with Parkinson's in the mid-1980s, but continued to teach until 2000, when he retired.
Jan Warfield said the disease had started to take its toll.
"Eventually it did slow him down, but he was moving so fast it slowed him down to ordinary speed," she said. "He was like lightning all the time."
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Oct. 27, 2007.