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For Mamie Hughes, Decades Of Hard Work In Kansas City Leads To 'Positive Changes'

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Mamie Hughes has advocated for racial and social equality in Kansas City for more than 60 years, and writes about it in a new autobiography, "Mamie Who? The Life and Times of a Colored Woman."

When Mamie Hughes first came to Kansas City, back in the early 1950s, things were a bit different than they are now.

"I used to wish I had a dollar for every time I was called n-----," says the 87-year-old.

She was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, and attended the historically black Fisk University. After graduation, she married Leonard Hughes, whom she met at Fisk, and relocated to his hometown, Kansas City.

It wasn't long before she started embedding herself in the local social scene, and teaching at local elementary schools. For more than six decades, that connection to the community has persisted.

Since then, plenty of progress has been made, she told Steve Kraske, host of KCUR's Up To Date, in a recent interview.

There was always "somebody out there who believed it could be better, and we worked on it," she says. "A lot has happened in a positive way."

Hughes has spent more effort than most carrying out that work.

Aside from teaching, Hughes was a charter member of the Jackson County Legislature, serving until 1978, and advocated and volunteered for projects throughout the metro that helped break down racial and gender discrimination.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Hughes, pictured here in 2014 on a bridge over Bruce R. Watkins Drive, acted as ombudswoman for the roadway's construction project, which she says was a satisfying position but came with plenty of controversy.

The biggest challenge Hughes faced, she says, was as ombudswoman for Bruce R. Watkins Drive — literally changing the geography of the city. The project at times pitted the Missouri Department of Transportation against families who had been living in the corridor for decades.

"A lot of the tension with the people in the roadway corridor was [over money]," Hughes says. "[Homeowners told me] 'they're taking our property, and they're not necessarily giving us the [full] value.'"

To survive those tough situations and thrive, Hughes says she practices sweetness whenever she can. It is a quality passed down by her grandmother.

"No matter what the problem was, I would think that: There's an answer to this," she says. "I don't have the answer, but I have to be calm and sweet and not have that awful disposition."

Hughes has written about her life in a self-published autobiography, Mamie Who? The Life and Times of a Colored Woman.

The title, she says, is a shout-out to the 1970s, when she was campaigning door-to-door for Jackson County's 4th District seat. She introduced herself as Mamie Hughes to one man who answered.

Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
In the 1960s, Hughes took part in protests against the treatment of black customers by restaurants and retailers in Kansas City. "It made members of the city council realize that there needed to be something written in law that said these people — all people — can be served," she says.

"He said, 'Mamie who?' ... My 6-year-old daughter was there and she heard," Hughes says. It was only a matter of time before the whole family joined in and it spread from there. "It lasted for quite a while."

After years of hard work, Hughes is happy. And grateful.

"I was satisfied a number of days," she says, "but I don't like to say 'I' because there were a lot of people who were helping."

You can listen to Mamie Hughes' entire conversation with Steve Kraske here.

Luke X. Martin is a freelance contributor to KCUR 89.3 and associate producer of 'Up To Date.' Contact him at luke@kcur.org.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.