The Brush Creek flood in September 1977 destroyed a portion of Kansas City, killing 25 people and wrecking countless businesses, homes and causing other damage.
The Kansas City Star, at the time, focused on the destruction at the Country Club Plaza, a high-end shopping center, and the affluent neighborhoods near there.
There was little written at the time about the devastation to the Black neighborhoods nearby, where most of the flooding took place.
“Our reporters did not go into those communities and talk to those people about how the flood impacted their lives,” says Mará Rose Williams, who now serves as the paper’s education reporter. “People tend to gravitate toward where they are comfortable and what they know. When you have a newsroom or an industry where a diverse population is not represented, you are going to miss a complete perspective. That’s exactly what happened with the Kansas City Star.”
Williams is trying to fix that overlooked, misreported and misrepresented story, among others, by leading an initiative to go back through the Star’s coverage, historically, and find examples of other incidents in which the lives of Black Americans were overlooked, ignored or poorly judged.
Williams is the driving force behind the Star’s series “The Truth in Black and White.” It kicked off last year with an apology for the paper’s historic failure to cover racism and discrimination in the city and to go back and re-report events to try and correct old mistakes.
“We know we live in a society that, for decades and decades, has marginalized people of color. As a result, newspapers did the same. That’s just a fact. We know that,” she says. “I was interested in trying to find out exactly, pinpointing, where and what we did at the Star. I knew papers across the country had done this but I wanted to find out what we had done.”
She had the support of her editors upon explaining her idea of the series, which began with an apology. The apology was important, she says, because if a newspaper is truly sincere in trying to make up for the mistakes of the past, it has to acknowledge that mistakes were made and take ownership of them.
In re-investigating the flood, the Star tried to reach out to some people whose lives were upended. The Star also relied on the reporting of the Kansas City Call, the city’s Black-owned weekly paper, which covered the floods extensively at the time.
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell is joined by Mará Rose Williams, a 22-year education reporter with the Kansas City Star and co-creator of the paper’s series, “The Truth in Black and White.” The series began with an apology for the paper’s white-washing of history and failing to adequately cover the lives and losses of Black Americans and revisited some events to try and make things right.