She Still Inspires Us: Remembering Lucile Bluford on Her Day

Lucile Bluford isn’t just Kansas City’s treasure. The state of Missouri has officially seen to that.

Saturday, July 1, marked the first statewide observance of Lucile Bluford Day per a Missouri House measure signed into law a year ago. “The citizens of this state,” it says, “are encouraged to appropriately observe the day in honor of Lucile Bluford, a journalist and civil rights activist who successfully sued to end segregation in the University of Missouri journalism program and whose long and distinguished career at The Kansas City Call contributed to it becoming one of the largest and most important Black newspapers in the nation.”

The Library joined in the commemoration – on what would have been Bluford’s 106th birthday – with a day of events and exhibits at its L.H. Bluford Branch, 3050 Prospect.

Rep. Brandon Ellington, who co-sponsored the commemoration bill, was the featured speaker at an 11 a.m. ceremony. Special exhibits highlighted Bluford’s life and career, and a new, early literacy play station connects young visitors with her story. It includes a replica of her newsroom desk, an old-fashioned typewriter, and a phone (connecting callers to the Library’s Dial-a-Story program).

“Ms. Bluford touched so many lives, both personally and through her work,” branch Manager Grace Bentley says. 

“People visit the branch every day to view our permanent exhibit (spotlighting Bluford), and many of those people have a story to tell about her. She also inspires our work as librarians. She fought for her right to get an education and, in doing so, opened up educational opportunities for others. Providing library services in the urban core is part of that legacy.”

Born in North Carolina in 1911, Bluford moved with her family to Kansas City when she was 7. She would become one of its most accomplished and beloved citizens.

She fell in love with journalism while working on the newspaper and yearbook at Lincoln High School, from which she graduated first in her class in 1928. With access to the University of Missouri and its famed journalism school blocked by the university’s refusal to admit African-Americans, Bluford attended the University of Kansas, graduated with honors, and launched a reporting and editing career that eventually took her to The Call (where she’d worked summers during college).

She continued to push back against MU’s segregation policy. Backed by the NAACP, Bluford repeatedly applied for admission to its graduate program in journalism and filed several lawsuits. Missouri’s Supreme Court finally ruled in her favor in 1941, ordering the university to admit her because there was no equivalent program at all-black Lincoln University, but Mizzou closed its graduate program with a claim that professors and students were being siphoned away by World War II.

Bluford never took a class at MU. Still, her fight helped nudge the school toward integration. Mizzou was forced to establish a journalism school for African-American students at Lincoln, and it admitted its first black student in 1950. It honored Bluford decades later, the journalism program awarding her its Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism in 1984 and the university conferring an honorary doctorate in the humanities in 1989.

Bluford went on to a 69-year career with The Call, moving from reporter to city editor to managing editor and finally editor, owner, and publisher. She made the weekly newspaper a prominent voice for African-Americans in the city and a force in the fight against discrimination.

The Library named its branch on Prospect Avenue for her in 1988. In 2002, a year before she died at age 91, the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce named her Kansas Citian of the Year.