His name is all over Kansas City. So... who is Bruce R. Watkins?

KMBZ News Staff
February 08, 2019 - 8:28 am

Kansas City, MO - The name of Bruce R. Watkins is found across Kansas City - the stretch of Highway 71, the Bruce R. Watkins Heritage Center and Watkins Brothers Memorial Chapel.

"He was the first African-American elected to citywide office, City Council," said his son, Bruce R. Watkins Jr. "Before that he was the first African-American elected to countywide office; he was the circuit clerk."

Before politics, Watkins served as one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the famous group of African-American military pilots, during World War II. 

After the war, Watkins returned to Kansas City to continue the family business and became a licensed funeral director and embalmer.

During the 1960s, Watkins helped found Freedom Inc., an organization designed  to help African-Americans secure a voice in politics. 

"Through that organization we were able to establish some political strength," said Watkins Jr., who added that his father has to aspirations to political office until the people chose him.

Photographs show the elder Watkins leading a student march to City Hall during riots in the 60s.

"He used to often say, I'm just a simple mortician, but because of his leadership skills, thousands of people would ask him to seek public office," Watkins Jr. said.

Watkins then was elected as circuit clerk in Jackson County.

"Equity in hiring, that was a big issue in Jackson County at that time," Watkins Jr. said. "The public accomodations ordinance, they also championed the fair housing ordinance, those things to improve the quality of life."

Watkins ran for mayor in 1979, but lost to Republican Richard Berkeley.

He died of cancer the following year.

"He used to say we must look to the day when no one will be denied that office because of color of his skin," Watkins Jr. said. 

Bruce R. Watkins' office is preserved at the Heritage Center at 3700 Blue Parkway.

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