Lucile Bluford (1912 – 2003)
Lucile Bluford was a journalist who stood up for equal rights. At a time when African Americans were expected to accept unfair treatment in silence, she refused to be quiet.
Lucile Harris Bluford was born on July 1, 1911, in Salisbury, North Carolina, to John Henry Bluford, Sr. and Viola Harris Bluford. She had two brothers, John Jr. and Guion. Lucile’s father taught at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro. Her mother died when Lucile was only four. In 1921, when Lucile was ten, she moved with her father, her stepmother Addie Alston, and her brothers to Kansas City, Missouri. Her father had been hired to teach science at Lincoln High School.
At this time, schools throughout the South and bordering states like Missouri enforced a “separate but equal rule” in education. This meant that black children could not go to school with white children. They had to attend their own schools that were supposed to be equal in quality to the white schools. Lucile attended Wendell Phillips Elementary, a school named after an anti-slavery speaker from Boston, and started Lincoln High School at age 13. Lucile wrote for the school newspaper and graduated first in her class in 1928.
Becoming a Journalist
Lucile wanted to go to college to study journalism. She knew that she could not attend the University of Missouri in Columbia, which had the oldest and most respected journalism school in the country, because it would not admit African Americans. Black students were only allowed to study at the black college, Lincoln University, in Jefferson City. Lincoln University did not have a journalism program, so Lucile attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She graduated in 1932 with honors.
Lucile began her professional journalism career in Atlanta, Georgia, as a reporter for the black newspaper, The Daily World. Homesick, Lucile soon returned to Kansas City. First she worked at the The Kansas City American and then at The Kansas City Call, both black-owned newspapers. At The Call, Lucile worked her way up from reporter to city editor, managing editor, and finally to editor and publisher.
Facing Racial Barriers
In 1939, Lucile set out to test a system that she knew was wrong. She applied to the University of Missouri School of Journalism to do graduate work and was accepted. When she went to Columbia to enroll, however, she was turned away. University officials did not know that the highly-qualified woman they had admitted was black. This was the first of Lucile’s eleven attempts to enter the University of Missouri. Lucile filed the first of several lawsuits against the university on October 13, 1939.
With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Lucile worked hard to break down the system of injustice against blacks in higher education. She believed strongly that education was the key to advancement and equal treatment. Just the year before, an accomplished black man from St. Louis named Lloyd Gaines had sued the University of Missouri to be accepted into its School of Law. His case had gone to the Supreme Court and he had won. But Gaines mysteriously disappeared and Lucile’s case was denied time and time again.
Finally, in 1941, the state Supreme Court ruled in Lucile’s favor. The University of Missouri had to admit her because no equal program existed at Lincoln University. But instead of accepting Lucile, the journalism school closed its graduate program, claiming that it could not operate because so many of its professors and students were serving in World War II.
Writing for and Editing The Call
Lucile kept fighting racism. She became a leading voice in the civil rights movement in Kansas City and helped make The Call one of the largest and most important black newspapers in the nation. 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, Lucile received an Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the School of Journalism. In 1989, the university gave her an honorary doctorate. Lucile accepted it not only for herself, but for the thousands of black students the university had discriminated against over the years.
Lucile Bluford helped change the way African Americans are treated in America. Through her courage, persistence, and persuasive writing, Bluford exposed and broke down barriers in institutions of higher learning. She died in Kansas City on June 13, 2003 at the age of 91, having worked at The Call for seventy years. She is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Volume 1: 140–41.
McCandless, Perry and William E. Foley, eds. Missouri Then and Now. 3rd ed. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001. p. 317.
Tammeus, Lisen. “Unlocking Segregation.” Columbia Missourian. Sunday, February 28, 1993. (http://digicol.missouri.edu/)