The Unforgettable Miss Bluford

By Pam Johnson

We often ask seminar participants to share stories about people whose values or leadership helped shape them. The stories inspire and teach us about leaders who make a difference in other people’s lives or circumstances.

One of the stories I like to share is that of Lucile Bluford, the longtime editor and publisher of The Kansas City Call, one of the leading black newspapers in the country. Miss Bluford began as a reporter in 1932, became editor in 1955, then publisher in 1983. She never truly retired, and her mark on Kansas City — over seven decades of leadership — will remain for decades to come.

She was so familiar in the community that simply saying Lucile was enough of an identifier. Yet, many who knew her referred to her as Miss Bluford -– a demonstration of the respect she engendered.

I met Miss Bluford a few times during the 13 years in the 70′s and 80′s that I worked for The Kansas City Star, the city’s major daily newspaper. Our building faced 18th Street, a main street that a mile or two east led to the long time center of black Kansas City, its jazz, its commerce, and its newspaper, The Call.

As an assistant city editor, I worked many stories and issues that were at the heart of The Call‘s interests. So I read the paper — both the coverage (much of it done by Miss Bluford) and her editorials. I knew I couldn’t do my job well if I was missing Miss Bluford’s take on developments.

Her determination inspired me. She demonstrated that we all have the potential to leave a situation better than we found it. Certainly, without Miss Bluford and The Call, it is difficult to imagine how black and white Kansas City could have grown past the deep divide that once existed.

And, thanks to the Washington Press Club Foundation Oral History Project, “Women in Journalism,” Miss Bluford’s life story — and those of other significant women leaders in journalism — is recorded, and transcripts are available around the country. Many details here come from Miss Bluford’s interviews for that project.

I have several favorite stories I like to share about her and her values.

Miss Bluford was honest, forthright, and feisty.

She asked tough questions, and she told the community the truth. If the black community or its leaders were out of line or were too slow to act, she called them on it. She did the same with the white community.

That honesty and forthrightness strengthened her credibility and veracity among people of varying perspectives. It even allowed her to be feisty when it suited the moment.

She scolded Jesse Jackson when he brought his presidential campaign to Kansas City. He kept 7,000 people waiting for two hours and had failed to alert the black press early enough so that they could have helped with the turnout. She insisted that he never do that again. To which he could only respond: “Yes, ma’am, Miss Bluford.”

Without Miss Bluford and The Call, it is difficult to imagine how black and white Kansas City could have grown past the deep divide that once existed.

She had a history of sharpening her journalism when pointed questions needed to be raised.

In 1942, she headed to Sikeston, Mo., after a black man had been lynched. Her questions focused on how this brutal act could occur. In her oral history, she describes what she found in Sikeston:

The lynching could have been prevented by law enforcement officials, because they seemed to know ahead of time … (They were) telling black folks, “Get off the streets because there’s going to be a demonstration here pretty soon.” … They could have taken the prisoner to another town or county.

She wrote that story, and countless others in which she challenged authorities to answer for their action or inaction, particularly regarding barriers that stood between black people and their opportunities to work, live, and achieve on equal footing with white people.

She believed in and practiced The Call‘s platform.

The long-time publisher and owner of The Call, Chester A. Franklin, set a mission that in part reads: “The Call strives to help every man in the firm belief that all are hurt as long as anyone is held back.”

Miss Bluford was the embodiment of that platform. At the time of her death in June 2003, one of the most frequent descriptions of her was that she was the conscience of Kansas City. That role as the conscience is perhaps her greatest legacy.

She believed that solutions for the black community should be good for the whole community. She nurtured the conversation across race, helping found Friendship House, a place for interracial experiences. She was constantly out in the community, building relationships in the white community, just as she did in the black community.

She helped develop and support black leaders who could work effectively across racial boundaries.

Perhaps one of the most meaningful developments for the community came in 1999, when The Call and The Star worked together to report on race in Kansas City — a story best told together rather than separately. Although Miss Bluford had been sidelined by a stroke, her leadership certainly helped set the stage for such a partnership.

After her death, The Star’s editor, Mark Zieman, gave Miss Bluford credit for helping journalists along the way and even helping his paper become better.

“Our efforts to diversify our staff, to cover news important to minorities, to give a voice to (the) voiceless, were spurred, in no small part, by Miss Bluford and her Call, shaming us into doing the right thing,” he said in a Star story. “She made us all better. She made Kansas City better.”

She stood up for what she believed was right but not for her personal glory.

Her story is one to be celebrated, appreciated, and memorialized — though she herself would cringe at the thought. She never sought glory, only progress for civil rights.

This story about Miss Bluford depicts the book-ends of her career and portrays both the determination and the understanding that she often exhibited.

In 1939, she applied to the University of Missouri graduate program in journalism and was refused admission. These highlights of what transpired come from stories in The Star and The Call after her death and from her oral history:

  • She had graduated from the school of journalism at the University of Kansas. She went there, knowing that her home-state university — Missouri — refused to admit blacks.
  • After Missouri refused to admit her to the graduate program, she sued the university. That lawsuit followed a lengthy, wrenching case filed by Lloyd Gaines of St. Louis, who sought to attend the university’s law school.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gaines’ favor on appeal, but Missouri lawmakers found a way around the ruling. A succeeding challenge was made and was within reach of victory when, for reasons still unknown, Gaines disappeared and was never seen again.
  • It was under this cloud that Miss Bluford pursued her case.
  • She lost her lawsuit, but the Gaines and Bluford cases, while unsuccessful, were part of the growing challenges around the country that eventually led to the landmark U.S Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

Asked during her oral history interview how much it mattered to have lost the suit, she said:

Oh, you hated to lose … We tried so long to break down that separate but equal business, which was never equal. So sure, you were disappointed but you just keep going, just like in the restaurants, and theaters, and things. You just kept fighting until they finally got open.

Forty-five years after the lawsuit, she demonstrated understanding — not resentment — of what took place at the university.

When the Missouri School of Journalism honored Miss Bluford in Columbia with its Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, she had an additional mission. She looked up S.W. Canada, the registrar who refused her admission in 1939. He was retired but still lived on the campus.

In her oral history, Miss Bluford said she and her student host went to the house and knocked on the door.

“He came to the door,” she said. “He lived by himself. And he invited us in … He knew I was there because there was a lot of publicity. I said ‘You remember me?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I remember you.’”

They shared a laugh and sat down for a while.

“I asked him, you know, why he turned me down, because I knew what he was going to say. And he said, well, he had to or lose his job because that’s what he was told to do. I knew that, but he said it.”

She returned to the campus one more time, in 1989, when the university awarded her an honorary doctorate degree.

Here was part of what she heard May 6, 1989, as she received her Doctor of Humanities:

Fifty years ago this university repeatedly refused you admission because of the color of your skin. Today we recognize that the young journalist we turned away was and is a tireless role model who uses newsprint and ink to fight for equal educational and employment opportunities for all …

You fought valiantly to integrate the University of Missouri … We are embarrassed now that you lost the battle at this university, but today we are proud to add you to our list of degree holders — at long last.

It was such a fitting closure of the circle that was Lucile Bluford’s life and times.

There is much to learn from Miss Bluford’s leadership. Her determination to make things better will always speak to me. And that’s why, now and then, I pull out my favorite stories … so other newsroom leaders can experience the unforgettable Miss Bluford.

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