The Star set out to tell the stories of 10 hometown heroes. Here is one of them.
“We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up ... discovering we have the strength to stare it down.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Lucile Bluford took a lot of steps, even putting her life on the line.
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For more than 65 years as a reporter and then longtime editor and publisher of The Call, hers was the dominant voice of Kansas City’s African-American community, most powerfully during the Civil Rights era, arguably America’s bravest and ugliest chapter.
Of short stature, but feisty and fearless and with piercing pen, “Miss Bluford” turned her newspaper into a public conscience demanding that the abstract prose of the country’s founding documents finally be realized for all.
She took on issues of public accommodations, housing, voting rights, employment and school desegregation. She never backed down from a fight, said Alvin Brooks, former City Council member and longtime community activist.
“Hers was a voice that roared, and she changed this city forever,” Brooks said.
But first, you have to know the story of Lloyd Gaines — that’s when Bluford stepped into the fire.
Gaines, the son of a black tenant farmer, went to court in the 1930s to fight to enroll in the law school at the University of Missouri. He won — an early, important victory in the fight for equal rights.
But before Gaines could attend a single class, he disappeared and was never seen again. The NAACP went looking for another plaintiff to carry on the fight.
They found Bluford, a young reporter at The Call, to challenge the rule barring minority enrollment at MU’s school of journalism.
“She always told me she didn’t really want to do it, but she did it anyway,” said Donna Stewart, current editor at The Call and a longtime friend and protege of Bluford.
“That’s who she was. She never backed down.”
Bluford was born in July 1911 in Salisbury, N.C. Her mother died when she was 4. Her father remarried and moved the family to Kansas City when he accepted a teaching job at Lincoln High School.
That’s where Bluford later attended, and worked on the school paper. That lit the fire. From then on, she was a journalist.
She wanted to go to MU after high school because its journalism school was one of the country’s most respected. But she also knew she couldn’t get in because she was black. So she enrolled instead at the University of Kansas, graduating in 1932.
She worked first at a weekly black-owned newspaper in Atlanta before returning to Kansas City to join The Call.
She was a Call reporter when the NAACP came calling after Gaines disappeared. Many people think Gaines likely met with foul play. Keep in mind, this was 15 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that ended public school segregation.
Bluford applied by mail for graduate school at MU and was accepted. They didn’t know she was black until she showed up in Columbia and got in line for classes.
“They tapped on her shoulder and said she couldn’t be there,” Stewart said. “She applied about 10 times after that. She wasn’t going to give up.”
With the NAACP backing her, she sued the university in 1939.
She won. The school responded by ending its graduate program. The sides went back and forth.
In the end, Bluford never attended MU, but her case forced the university to establish a journalism school at Lincoln University for African-American students.
Nearly a half-century later, in 1984, the University of Missouri presented Bluford a Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. The school added an honorary doctorate a year later.
When she accepted the degree, she said she did so “not only for myself, but for the thousands of black students” the university had denied admission all those years.
When Bluford died in 2003 at age 91, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said: “She fought bigotry in her personal life, and then she forced Missouri to face it.”
Bluford called Alvin Brooks “Brooksie.”
One day in April 1968, she called Brooksie and asked him to drive her around neighborhoods devastated by riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
They drove past Lincoln High School, where police had fired tear gas into the building. They went by an intersection where three rioters had been killed. Fires still burned, cars lay tipped over.
“I drove and she was writing,” Brooks remembered. “She was in pain. She was quiet but I knew she was thinking — what’s happened to my city?”
She probably, though, saw it coming.
A decade earlier, the city’s African-American community took on exclusion practices at the downtown department stores. Black shoppers were not allowed in the stores’ tearooms.
Protesters began picketing in December 1958 — after first consulting with Bluford at The Call. They sent letters and staged public meetings. They tried to meet with store managers of Kline’s, Peck’s, Macy’s, Jones and Emery, Bird, Thayer.
The Call ran a weekly list of the protesters who marched in cold winter weather.
In February, the stores gave in. Probably, Bluford wrote later, because they figured out that “black people had money to spend.”
Stewart probably knew Bluford as well as anyone still around.
In 1998, after suffering a stroke, Bluford moved in with Stewart, her employee of nearly 25 years. It was a time difficult for Bluford to accept.
“The stroke affected her right hand — her writing hand,” Stewart said recently in The Call’s newsroom.
There is a presence in the old building in the 18th and Vine area. Bluford was there too long to simply be pushed aside by death.
“What she did here — always pushing truth, speed and accuracy — is still here,” Stewart said. “A person’s spirit doesn’t die.
“She had high expectations. Be professional. Be punctual to assignments. No laziness.”
She remembers the time Bluford jumped all over Jesse Jackson for being late to an event at Municipal Auditorium.
“She really dressed him down,” Stewart said with a chuckle. “He didn’t say anything.”
As a boss?
“She wasn’t fair to the staff, but it wasn’t personal,” Stewart said. “With Miss Bluford, it was always about The Call.”
One gets a hint that Bluford was hard on Stewart.
“She was hard on everyone,” Stewart said.
Still, when Bluford died, Stewart called her “a hell of a lady, a great teacher.”
Mark Zieman, then the editor of The Star, wrote at the time in praising Bluford that The Call covered stories sometimes ignored by the mainstream press, even his own newspaper.
“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, shaming us into doing the right thing.
“She made us all better.”
Bluford is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182