Mamie Hughes, 84, of Kansas City is a former Jackson County legislator, a founding member of Central Exchange, past chairwoman of Mid-America Regional Council and emeritus board member of the Samuel U. Rodgers Community Health Center, named after her second husband. Hughes has a degree in mathematics from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and served four years as chief executive officer of the Black Economic Union of Kansas City. She has been active in the local NAACP and the Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District. A bridge on U.S. 71 is named for her. This conversation took place at her home.
By CINDY HOEDEL
The Kansas City Star
You have done so much for the city and been involved in way more organizations than we can list in the introduction. What was the most rewarding thing you have ever been involved in?
The most challenging job was when I served as ombudsman for the roadway that used to be called the South Midtown Freeway that got turned into Bruce R. Watkins Drive. It was my job to represent all the people who were affected by acquisition, demolition and construction.
That cannot have been easy.
It was not. But it was exciting and frustrating. People had a lot of questions, and I didnt always have the answer, but I could sure find somebody that did.
You have been very active in womens rights your whole life. Where do you think we are today on that issue?
We have a long way to go when we are still hearing phrases like legitimate rape, and when women are still only making 77 cents on the dollar for the same work as men.
The Equal Rights Amendment has not been ratified yet. Thirty-five years ago, I was a member of the county legislature and some of us went to Jefferson City to see if Missouri could be the 38th state to ratify the amendment. We had to put up with men who would say, If you women get that, life will be so changed for us.
Well, of course we want life to be a little changed; we want to have some of the things men have. They would try to derail us with the most out-there things, like Men wont be able to open doors for women. I have four sons who open doors for me, and they always will. But what we are really talking about is opening all the doors, including doors in the workplace.
As a black woman in a city where there is still a long way to go when it comes to equal rights for African-Americans, did you ever feel conflicted about spending time on womens rights?
Oh, no. No, no. I wanted black women to be a part of the womens movement because we are talking about equality. Im not willing to separate: this is a black issue, this is a womens issue.
You grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and moved here when you were 20. How were the two cities different in terms of civil rights in the 1950s?
In Jacksonville, there were more signs that said colored for the drinking fountain, ecetera. And the train terminal had a separate waiting area for coloreds. So when I first got to Kansas City I noticed that there was not a separate waiting area in Union Station for blacks. But I did not have to live here long to notice that black people lived from Ninth Street to 29th Street and Troost was a long black curtain dividing the city east and west.
What is an equality issue you are proud to have worked on?
The public accommodations ordinance in 1964. Before that, blacks could not eat at the restaurant or try on clothes in the big department stores. We had to eat at the lunch counter, or as I called it, the booth in the back in the corner in the dark.
It took courage to participate in some of the protests you helped organize, such as picketing the department stores.
Yes. There were white people that showed courage as well. My grandmother always said, Not all white people are your enemy and not all colored people are your friend. I remember one time a white woman taking me and some other black women to eat at Brettons restaurant downtown. It was very upscale, and a white customer saw us and told Max (Bretton, owner), If you let them eat here, Im not coming back. Max patted him on the shoulder and said, Were going to miss you.