As she was growing up, Lucile Bluford couldn’t have imagined that she would become a highly influential journalist, a political activist, a key player in racial equality, and a role model for women–and yet she did. Spanning a life of 92 years, this amazing woman demonstrated limitless determination, tenacity, courage, and grit.
Destined to be a Journalist
While not a native Missourian, Lucile grew up in Kansas City with her father who was a teacher; sadly her mother died when Lucile was only four years old. Young Lucile developed a thirst for knowledge at an early age and developed a passion for journalism while writing for her high school newspaper. She graduated first in her class in 1928 and sought to enroll in the University of Missouri-Columbia (UMC), which had the oldest and most respected journalism program in the United States. The problem? UMC wouldn’t admit African American students.
Separate But Equal…
At that time in America’s history, the state of Missouri was abiding by a US Supreme Court decision (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) that upheld the “Separate but Equal” doctrine, meaning that racial segregation was legal as long as “equal” facilities were made available. That meant that Lucile and other African American students wanting to go college were expected to attend Lincoln University in Jefferson City, which was an historically black college.
However, Lincoln University didn’t have a journalism program so Lucile had a difficult decision to make: Give up on her dream of becoming a journalist and settle for an available program at Lincoln University, or find a university elsewhere that would meet her needs. She chose the latter by enrolling at the University of Kansas in Lawrence (UKL), graduating in 1932 with high honors. Noteworthy is that Ms. Bluford was not the first African American student to have graduated from UKL’s program.
For Lucile Bluford, the Doors Kept Shutting.
Upon graduation, Lucile began her career as a journalist but a few short years later she longed to pursue advanced studies in the field. In 1939 Mizzou accepted her into its coveted University of Missouri-Columbia graduate journalism program. However, she was turned away when she visited campus to enroll for classes–school officials had not known at the time she was accepted that she was not white. Instead of giving up, Lucile applied to the UMC Graduate School of Journalism eleven times. Each time Mizzou denied her admission.
Working with representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Ms. Bluford filed a series of lawsuits against the University. She lost each case until 1939, when the Missouri Supreme Court finally ruled in her favor. The Court cited that the “Separate but Equal” doctrine wasn’t applicable because Lincoln University didn’t have a journalism program. Therefore, the University of Missouri-Columbia must admit her.
In an act of defiant racism, UMC officials announced in 1941 it would terminate the entire School of Journalism graduate program. They chose this path rather than admit an African American. The reason given? So many students and faculty members were playing a role in World War II that they couldn’t keep the program up and running. Oddly though, we uncovered evidence that no other graduate programs were impacted, which greatly diminishes the University’s reason for shutting down the program Lucile Bluford worked so hard to get into.
Out of Adversity Comes Strength. Out of Strength Comes Impact.
The years of fighting for her right to get into the college of her choice didn’t dampen Lucile’s spirit. Instead, she learned to use her voice as a journalist, editor, and publisher to speak out against racial injustice. She went on to become an activist and leader in the Kansas City civil rights movement. For pieces deemed highly controversial in her paper the Kansas City Call, Lucile had to write under the pen name Louis Blue. She had to take on a man’s name because she was fighting not only racial injustice. She also fought gender inequality.
Slowly, over time, positive change started to happen. In 1950, the first African American student was admitted to the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her nephew became the first African American astronaut in outer space. The Kansas City Public Library named one of its branches in her honor. There’s currently an active Missouri Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus.
Bluford Receives Well-Deserved Recognition
In 1984, Lucile Bluford received an Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Five years later the University awarded her an honorary doctorate. Due to the efforts of former State Representative Gail McCann Beatty, Gov. Jay Nixon designated July 1st as “Lucile Bluford Day” beginning in 2017.
Lucile Bluford was a woman of strength, integrity, and principle. She stood up not only for herself but for disenfranchised or forgotten Missourians. She gave a voice to those who didn’t have one, and her legacy lives on today. OneMissouri is honored to share this amazing woman’s story with our readers; please join us in recognizing her contributions to our state.
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Top Photo Credit: University of Missouri