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James Buford Reflects On Three Decades Leading The Urban League

Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis

A year ago, James Buford announced that he intended to retire after almost three decades as President and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.  He just celebrated his 69th birthday and May 31 was to have been his last day. But instead, he was asked to stay on another month while the agency completes the process of hiring his successor. He will then serve in a consulting capacity to help the new CEO get acclimated to the position.

When Buford took the helm of the Urban League in 1985, the organization had a $300,000 deficit.  He leaves his successor with a $2.3 million surplus, something that he considers crucial for any non-profit to have given the present day financial uncertainty.  Last year, the Urban League served 60,000 people in the St. Louis area with a $23 million dollar budget. He is also proud of the fact that for the last 6 years, the St. Louis organization has been ranked the number one affiliate in the national organization consisting of more than 100 affiliates. 

Buford was Don Marsh’s guest on St. Louis on the Air to reflect on his accomplishments, the process of hiring his successor, his advice for that person and a look at what is next, both for himself and the organization.   He pointed out that everyone thinks of the Urban League as a social and human service organization providing programs such as Head Start, employment services, foreclosure prevention, utility assistance and home weatherization, just to name a few.  But it is also the second oldest civil rights organization in the country, so the CEO has to strike a delicate balance between social service and advocating for social justice and civil rights.  At times, that may mean having to advocate and agitate with the same people and businesses who fund the Urban League.

After 28 years at the Urban League, Buford has developed definite ideas about what he thinks must happen for the St. Louis region to flourish.  They include a merger of St. Louis City and County, a merger of some of the many municipalities to be more efficient and cost effective in providing services, some sort of school district merger to assist the struggling districts such as River Gardens and Normandy, renew efforts to use the new airport runway to make St. Louis a cargo hub and pursue cargo business from China, government and corporate work on minority, disadvantaged and women businesses, an immigration initiative,  collaboration on rebuilding the riverfront and one of the most important, work on race relations.

In reflecting on the racial polarization in the St. Louis region, Buford remembered a quote from Martin Luther King during a visit to St. Louis in 1964, “We must work together as brothers or perish as fools.”  He explained, “We’ve got to come to the realization that we are going to perish as a community, or at least become very irrelevant if we don’t deal with this. You know people say, ‘Jim, in the 60's when cities were burning and they had riots, St. Louis took care of that.’  Well the leadership kind of met with the leadership and kept things quiet, but never addressed the issue.  They addressed symptoms, but never the core issue.  So as a result, other communities like Birmingham and Atlanta and others have moved on because they couldn’t deny they had racial issues when the city was burning. So they took the initiative and fixed it to some degree.  We have yet to come to grips with that and as a result, we are woefully behind other communities in our race relations compared to most communities.” 

Buford reports that the search for his successor has yielded three very qualified candidates.  A committee from the national organization will meet with each of them in a certification procedure.  The local search committee will select the new CEO from the ones that receive the national certification.  Buford looks forward to helping the new CEO to the extent that the person wants his help. 

Buford has no immediate plans for his retirement.  He presently sits on 21 boards.  He plans on resigning from 10,  staying on 11 and adding a few new ones and has just been named to the committee to search for the new President of the Missouri History Museum. He  also looks forward to putting aside his signature bow ties and gradually reducing is 300 plus collection of them.

As he steps down, Buford is optimistic about the future of the Urban League.  He told Marsh at the conclusion of their conversation, “I’m proud of the fact that the Urban League has spoken for and represented our constituents, not just African American people, but all people who have been disenfranchised.  I’m proud of the fact that I grew an agency with great history.  We’re 94 years old.  We’ll be 100 years old shortly and I think generally across the board, I left the agency in a better place than I found it.”

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Mary Edwards came to St. Louis Public Radio in 1974, just after finishing her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She has served the station in a number of capacities over the years. From 1988-2014 she also taught an undergraduate class in radio production at Webster University. Mary was inducted into the St. Louis Media History Foundation Media Hall of Fame in April, 2017 and received the Gateway Media Literacy Partners' Charles Klotzer Media Literacy Award in 2012. Mary retired from St. Louis Public Radio in 2018, but still serves the station as a St. Louis Symphony Producer.
Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Don Marsh served as host of St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis on the Air" from 2005 to 2019, bringing discussions of significant topics to listeners' ears at noon Monday through Friday. Don has been an active journalist for 58 years in print, radio and television. He has won 12 Regional Emmy Awards for writing, reporting, and producing. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame in 2013, and named “Media Person of the Year” by the St. Louis Press Club in 2015. He has published three books: his most recent, “Coming of Age, Liver Spots and All: A Humorous Look at the Wonders of Getting Old,” “Flash Frames: Journey of a Journeyman Journalist” and “How to be Rude (Politely).” He holds an honorary Doctor of Arts and Letters degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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