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James Buford in 2019

Past Citizen of the Year winner James Buford attends the presentation to formally present Kathy Osborn the 2018 Citizen of the Year Award, Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in a ceremony held at Washington University's Emerson Auditorium. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

James Buford, a 28-year president of the area's Urban League, known for his bow tie and for bridging tense and wide racial gaps between blacks and whites in St. Louis, has died.

"I'm a black person with an ability to get on with whites, but I'm black," he told the Post-Dispatch in a 1992 interview. "The way I learned to relate to whites and not intimidate them — maybe I can use that. I think I can shuttle back and forth and be the bridge."

Mr. Buford died early Friday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital after a brief illness, his family said.

Mr. Buford was 75.

Mr. Buford was born in 1944 in St. Louis' Grand Center, then a middle-class black neighborhood. His father was one of the city's first black policemen.

Before his tenure at the Urban League, Mr. Buford was in private industry. After attending St. Louis Community College, he sold pharmaceutical products before moving into the public sector in 1975. He set up a GED program that was successful enough to land him a job working for Delaware Gov. Pierre "Pete" du Pont, a Republican. 

He returned to St. Louis to help Missouri Gov. Christopher "Kit" Bond replicate a du Pont-era jobs program. When he heard in 1985 that the Urban League job would be open, he applied. He got the job that year and stayed until 2013, when he retired.

Mr. Buford held a bachelor's degree in human services administration from Elizabethtown College. He also had honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from Harris-Stowe State College, 1993; the University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1995; Webster University, 2000; and Eden Theological Seminary, 2006. 

Michael McMillan, current president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, spoke of Mr. Buford as a leader determined to set the organization up for success even after he was gone. The two had known each other since McMillan was 16. He joined the Urban League when Mr. Buford was president.

"I saw him work extremely hard to build the Urban League into the institution it is today, as the largest affiliate in the Urban League movement," McMillan said. 

In 2004, the Urban League chapter in St. Louis earned a five-star rating from the national Urban League, and it has maintained it ever since. The organization went from serving 20,000 people to more than 70,000 under his leadership.

Mr. Buford's presence was important and unique for the Urban League, McMillan said, and it showed through his service on more than two dozen boards of directors over his career. It gave the Urban League visibility and access to government and business leaders. 

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Notably, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed him as secretary of the St. Louis County Board of Elections in 1993. He was appointed to the St. Louis Public School Board in 2005 by Francis Slay, who was St. Louis mayor at the time.

Mr. Buford helped create a diverse board of directors for the Urban League itself, too. McMillan said the board was almost always 50-50, between black and white representatives. 

Mr. Buford is survived by his wife, Susan E. Buford; his two sons, James Henry Buford Jr. and Jason Christopher Buford; and six grandchildren.

"Jimmy was an incredible family man, a community leader, a person of faith and an overall people person," Susan Buford said. "He was an influencer who believed in and loved St. Louis."

Information on memorial services is pending.

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