Never officially recognized during her lifetime, the first African American woman to graduate from the university will be posthumously honored this spring
Journalism may be the first draft of history, but journalism can spawn the best draft of history. History overlooked Lucile Berkeley Buchanan, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Colorado, but journalism has brought her back into view.
Tipped off by a newspaper story, Polly McLean, a CU Boulder associate professor of media studies, spent more than a decade exhuming Buchanan’s story and, finally, correcting history. For decades, the university’s official history erroneously stated that the first black woman to graduate from CU earned her degree in 1924.
In fact, however, the first black woman to graduate from CU did so in 1918.
Now, a century after Buchanan’s alma mater barred her from walking across the Macky Auditorium stage to accept her degree, Buchanan is being more fully recognized.
In April, McLean will give the first Lucile Berkeley Buchanan Lecture, recounting her research of the pioneer’s life. In May, McLean’s book—Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High—will be published. And at the May commencement, McLean will accept the diploma and the recognition officially withheld for a century.
Philip P. DiStefano, the campus chancellor, will recognize Buchanan, a move he calls “long overdue.” And McLean will symbolically accept Buchanan’s degree—onstage.
The symmetry is striking: The first African American woman to graduate will be honored because of McLean, the first black woman to earn tenure at CU Boulder and the first black woman to head an academic unit.
The daughter of emancipated slaves, Buchanan was born in 1884 in Denver. Her family lived on land purchased from P.T. Barnum, the noted circus mogul and cynic known for his “sucker born every minute” quip.
She became the first in her family to graduate from not one but two of the state’s top institutions of higher education: In 1905, she was the first African American to graduate with a two-year degree from what is now the University of Northern Colorado. In 1918, she was the first black woman to graduate from CU, earning a degree in German.
After a long career as a school teacher, she lived in Denver until her death in 1989. She was 105.
The newspaper clip
McLean began pursuing the story by chance: In 2001, she was doing background research for an assignment she’d given her women’s studies class. The assignment: students were to uncover the history of black women in Boulder.
“I wanted to set high academic expectations by getting students outside the classroom to find primary sources in order to critically examine the history of black women in Boulder,” McLean writes. She took her own assignment to heart.
During a visit to the CU Heritage Center in Old Main, McLean was handed a copy of a newspaper article from eight years prior. The story, in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, was headlined “She was CU’s first black female grad: A pioneer buried without a headstone.”
The story, in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, was headlined “She was CU’s first black female grad: A pioneer buried without a headstone.”
The News quoted Doris and Larry Harris, who had purchased Buchanan’s Denver home after the state of Colorado had forced her into a nursing home. The Harrises noted that they’d bought the home for $70,000 and wondered why her estate didn’t yield enough money for a headstone.
The News also quoted a CU spokeswoman as saying that the university would correct the record “wherever it appears” incorrectly. Eight years later, the official record was still incorrect.
As McLean writes: “A desire to understand the university’s reasoning for dismissing her achievement motivated me to dig deeper, and thus began my search for Lucile.”
The search spanned 10 states and consumed more than 10 years.
By the time McLean was on the story, Doris and Larry Harris had divorced and moved away, taking Buchanan’s memorabilia with them. In bits and pieces, with tenacity and cajolery, McLean unearthed a portrait of the pioneer.
A life of struggle, education and hope
One of Buchanan’s sisters, Laura, committed suicide in 1899 while attempting to become a teacher. The death made it into the Rocky Mountain News, which covered the story under the headline, “Color discrimination drove a girl to suicide.”
Buchanan also faced discrimination as she strove to teach. She applied for her first teaching job in 1905 in a company coal town in Huerfano County, Colorado. She didn’t get the job, and her cause was taken up by a newspaper editor who condemned the racial discrimination that thwarted her hiring.
Buchanan left Colorado and taught in Little Rock and Hot Springs, Ark., then in 1915 enrolled in the University of Chicago, where she studied German, Greek and the British poets Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson.
At CU, she continued her study of German, and McLean underscores a reason: “The black intelligentsia at the end of the 19th and into the early decades of the 20th century viewed Germany as a ‘spiritual fatherland,’” McLean writes.
Additionally, Buchanan had studied the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociologist, historian and activist who studied in Berlin and had an affinity with Germany. Du Bois argued that blacks needed a liberal arts education to battle racial inequality.
At CU in 1918, Buchanan’s mother, two sisters and a niece came to campus to watch commencement, which was supposed to be a happy occasion. After being barred from the stage, Buchanan left CU and vowed never to return. “She kept her promise,” McLean writes.
Buchanan taught in Kansas City and married John Dotha Jones in 1926. He abandoned Buchanan in 1935. She filed for divorce, claiming that he’d committed adultery and had been cruel and habitually drunk.
After being barred from the stage in front of her family, Buchanan left CU and vowed never to return. “She kept her promise,” McLean writes.
Buchanan didn’t talk much about Jones, but she did later tell friends and family that Jones had been killed in a duel. In fact, McLean notes, Jones passed away in 1965, after living with another man for 22 years in a home they purchased together.
Buchanan went back to school in 1937, enrolling in graduate studies in English literature at the University of Chicago. She was 53. And in 1949, she retired from teaching and returned to Denver to live in the home that her father, the former slave who became a teamster and street commissioner, had built.
There she lived until she was 103, when Colorado Adult Protective Services deemed her a danger to herself, physically restraining her and placing her in a Denver nursing home. The agency asked a court to appoint a conservator to sell Buchanan’s home, and pay her bills.
Buchanan was blind and had no family willing or able to help.
Even in old age and confined to a nursing home, Buchanan remained dedicated to civic duty. A faithful voter, the News interviewed her and other centenarian voters in 1988, when she was 104 and voting, with assistance, from the nursing home.
Buchanan, a lifelong Republican, told the News that Franklin D. Roosevelt is the only Democrat she might have supported, because, “Over the years as I look back, there were many good things he did for the people.”
As for her loyalty to the GOP, Buchanan’s longtime mantra was: “Lincoln was a Republican. That’s all I need to know.”
Much of the historical material McLean unearthed came from her own dogged investigative reporting. In many cases, key records came from newspapers.
It was a newspaper story that helped ensure that Buchanan’s grave is no longer unmarked. Frederick John Walsen, grandson of the founder of Walsenburg, read the Rocky Mountain News article in 1993 (“A pioneer buried without a headstone”). He immediately began working with Fairmont Cemetery in Denver to add her name to a family headstone.
Walsen died in 2000, before McLean could speak with him. He himself was CU alumnus. His major was journalism.
McLean will deliver the inaugural Lucile Berkeley Buchanan lecture on Wednesday, April 4, from 6:30-8 p.m. in the Old Main Chapel. The event is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by the Center of the American West; College of Arts and Sciences; College of Media, Communication and Information; Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement; Miramontes Arts and Sciences Program; and the Departments of Germanic & Slavic Languages & Literatures, Women and Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies.