Bruce R. Watkins left his name all over KC, but do you know who he was?

February 08, 2019 - 8:28 am

The name of Bruce R. Watkins is all over in Kansas City but few people can say much about the man who is honored with a 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, from the third district," 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. He served in 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 sixties,  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.

Join us for the African American Musical Heritage Series during black history month @BRWCHC #FreeAdmission @MoHumanities

— Bruce R Watkins CTR (@BRWCHC) January 30, 2019
"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.

Once elected to circuit clerk, Watkins began to turn plans into action, while continuing work with Freedom Inc.

"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 from his time in public service is preserved at the Heritage Center at 3700 Blue Pkwy.

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