Heart of Arts

A Tribute to Professor Felix Ekechi

Toyin Falola


Professor Felix Ekechi, an eminent historian, died on July 14, 2023, at 89. He was many things to many people­−a teacher, scholar, legend, community leader, father, husband, grandfather, and many more. To me, he was a tireless intellectual and a mentor. We had many great mutual friends, including Professor Bessie House-Soremekun and the late Professors Boniface Obichere and Don Ohadike. We shared meals in our homes. We exchanged jokes. We resolved conflicts with colleagues, and we discussed Nigeria.

He told me stories, memorable ones. After he completed his Ph.D., he was bent on returning to Nigeria, as members of his generation returned to Africa within days of defending their theses. Unlike now! Back then, you had to go through Europe. On reaching London, the airport in Lagos was shut down as part of the beginning of the Nigerian civil war. He was stranded but was eventually rescued with a job in the United States.

He told me many more stories. He was to join me at a conference in Ibadan but was missing. It was not the age of cell phones (which made it a peaceful world without the nuisance of current technology).

Weeks later.

“Sir, where were you?”

“My visa did not arrive.”

“Are you not an American citizen?”

“I will never be; I use only my Green Card.”

It was not the age of dual citizenship, which was done to spite the lowly because the children of the rich must live in multiple worlds.

Ekechi told me more stories. We would drink and fall asleep. Laughter the next morning.

Let me go back to history before I confuse it with stories. Professor Ekechi was an emeritus professor of history and an eminent historian at Kent State University, Ohio. I remember he was there on May 4, 1970, and he witnessed what we now call the Kent State Shootings, which wounded nine of their students and killed some. He took me to the stop twice; the first time, he invited me to give the keynote address at a conference he organized in 1991.

As an outstanding analyst of Christian missionaries in Eastern Nigeria, Ekechi’s works addressed the effect of Christian missionaries on Igbo culture, how several things were used as baits to convert people, and the impact of medical services offered by missionaries on African traditional healthcare systems, among several other issues. His widely cited book, Missionary Enterprise and Rivalry in Igboland, 1857-1914, discusses themes such as the supremacy of religions, colonial influence, and the penetration and establishment of the missionary in Igboland. I had an interesting time speaking about this book at a seminar in Chicago which I was invited to by the late Professor Ogbu Kalu, another mutual friend.

Once a valued member of the African Community Association and formerly the Director of the Institute of African Studies at Kent State University, Professor Ekechi took this position seriously and made tangible changes and developments in the Institute. His deep interest in Africa saw him write extensively on the state of Africa, correcting many wrong notions and misinterpretations that have been peddled about Africa and Africans. He did not shy away from expressing his views about issues pertinent to Africa. He criticized the colonialists’ hold over Africans and African culture several times. In his book, Portrait of a Colonizer: H. M. Douglas in Colonial Nigeria, 1897-1920, Ekechi condemned the overbearing and deliberate callous brutality of colonial masters toward Africans. His contribution to knowledge in African scholarship tremendously increased interest in African history.

Professor Ekechi’s life tells a story of hard work, devotion, and tenacity. He was a respectable, kind, and admirable man who was a joy to be around. He positively impacted the lives of many who encountered him through his life, career, and scholarship. He will be sorely missed. His existence blessed Nigeria, the African continent, and the world.

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