Lucile Bluford 1911-2003, famed Missouri journalist, fought racial injustice.
In 1919 Chester A. Franklin, a recent college graduate and son of a Colorado newspaper editor, settled in Kansas City, to publish a newspaper, The Call, that would be devoted to "the aspirations of and challenges before the Black community."
Since the end of Reconstruction in 1877, at least 64 black newspapers had been inaugurated in the Show-Me State. But most of them had short runs. The first such ventures were in St. Louis. The new century saw the advent of the local Argus and The American, which are still being published. There are no black dailies in Missouri.
Franklin had high standards for his paper. Through the years, he was able to attract bright, young college graduates to his staff. One was Roy Wilkins of St. Louis who came in 1926 and became news editor. The results were impressive, "a masterfully executed journal," as described by several Kansas City editors. Wilkins later became editor of the NAACP's publication Crisis, but before he left The Call he hired and trained a young protege--Lucile Bluford.
Bluford's family had moved west from North Carolina, settling for a time in St. Louis and then moving to Kansas City. Her father taught at Lincoln High School where she was to graduate first in her class in 1928. She went on to the University of Kansas where she studied journalism and played an important role on the student staff of the Daily Kansan.
She joined The Call after her college graduation. She had been a summer intern at the paper during her college years and had caught the attention of Franklin and Wilkins. Her solid work as a police reporter, photographer and skilled writer earned her the position of managing editor after Wilkins' departure in 1937. She was scarcely more than 26 years old, but already she could do it all.
Still, Bluford wanted to polish her skills at the graduate school of journalism at the University of Missouri. She was emboldened by the landmark 1938 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating that African-American Lloyd Gaines be admitted to the University of Missouri Law School because the state was not in compliance with the separate-but-equal doctrine that flowed from the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson. Separate-but-equal was supposed to mean that if you had a white Harvard, you had to have a black Yale. Of course, it never occurred. After he won his case, Gaines mysteriously disappeared, thought to have been murdered.
In the 1930s, the Journalism School of the University of Missouri was considered to be one of the finest in collegiate circles, drawing students from throughout the nation and the world. All were welcomed without restrictions. All, that is, except African Americans.
So, Bluford, as a graduate of Kansas University, laid her plans to apply for admission. Because there was no space for declaration of racial identification on the enrollment form, she met all the prescribed qualifications and was accepted.
Arriving at the university for the fall term in 1939, she took her place in line to register for classes. As she recalls it, "There were student candidates from every nation and race, but there were no blacks." Quickly, an official of the university intervened and escorted Bluford to the office of the registrar where she was informed that there was an unfortunate mistake. "We do not accept blacks at this institution," the registrar said.
"But the Gaines decision allows me entrance," asserted Bluford.
"The Gaines decision is null and void," was the reply.
She sued Mizzou
Following her blunt rejection, Bluford turned to Wilkins, her mentor. His advice was to file suit against the university. As with the Gaines case, the incomparable Charles Huston, chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, took the challenge.
During the litigation, the Missouri Legislature, as it had done in response to Gaines, appropriated funds to establish a journalism school at the all-black Lincoln University in Jefferson City for one student--Lucile Bluford. She refused to attend.
After losing several court decisions for admission to Missouri University, Bluford withdrew her case. But in 1941 the state supreme court finally ruled in her favor and said the University of Missouri had to admit her because no equal program existed at Lincoln. In response, the School of Journalism closed its graduate program claiming most of its professors and students were serving in World War II.
For Bluford, there were weightier matters to attend to, and her resolve had been tested and strengthened. She became a civil rights activist with a belief that education was the key to advancement and equal treatment in society. She was promoted to city editor, managing editor and, finally, to editor and publisher of The Call. She helped make the paper one of the largest and most important black papers in the nation.
You might say that Bluford's career in American journalism is nearly a mirror image of that of the indomitable Ida Wells, the first black woman editor in the United States, who fought tirelessly and courageously for human rights and justice, which resulted in federal legislation establishing anti-lynching laws in the country.
From the day she assumed the editorship of The Call, Bluford stood her ground against violence, injustice, discrimination, segregation and poverty. She stood firm in her support of quality, integrated education for all children, while defending affirmative action and the rights of women. She was a judge in the Pulitzer Prize competition; and, as a witness to the century, was proclaimed a first citizen of Kansas City and was considered The Dean of Missouri's newspaper editors.
Eventually the University of Missouri honored her. In 1984, a year after her nephew, Guion S. Bluford Jr., became the first African-American astronaut in space, she received an honor medal for distinguished service from the School of Journalism.
In May 1989, the University of Missouri bestowed upon Lucile Bluford the honorary doctor of humanities degree. The citation read in part: "Fifty years ago, this university 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 used newsprint to fight for equal opportunities for all."
The Board of Trustees added: "'You fought valiantly to integrate the University of Missouri as you were to fight for integration for all areas of American life. We are embarrassed that you lost the battle at this university but today we are proud to add you to our list of laureates--at long last."
Bluford was asked why she accepted the degree. With a smile, she said: "Because, you see, I earned it." She also said it was "not only for myself but for the thousands of black students" the university had discriminated against over the years.
The State Historical Society lists her among Famous Missouri Journalists, saying that "In both in her personal life and her career, she refused to remain quiet about racial injustice."
Lucile Bluford died in 2003 at the age of 91. She had worked at the Call for 70 years. A public library in Kansas City is named after her, and it was recently reopened after a $1.3-million upgrade.
Robert W. Tabscott is a Presbyterian minister and founder of the Elijah Lovejoy Society, a historical research center in Webster Groves.
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|Author:||Tabscott, Robert W.|
|Publication:||St. Louis Journalism Review|
|Article Type:||Brief biography|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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