Published: Feb. 16, 2022

Black history snapshot: Racial bias hindered Charles and Mildred Nilon’s search for a home to buy, but they strove to make the university more inclusive and welcoming to those who came after

Charles Nilon joined the University of Colorado Boulder faculty in 1956 as a professor of English. He was the first Black member of the faculty, and his arrival came two years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, desegregated public schools.

However, segregation and discrimination were alive and well in Boulder’s real-estate market. Realtors would not show Nilon and his wife, Mildred, property in some parts of town, and some individuals refused to sell to him.

Harl Douglass, then director of the CU Boulder School of Education, offered to sell the Nilons his home, but that plan was thwarted by a realtor who sought to buy the Douglass home so that it might be sold to a “proper” person.

Charles and Mildred Nilon

At the top of the page: Nilon addressing students in 1963 about civil rights. Photos courtesy of CU archives. Above: Charles and Mildred Nilon.

Ultimately, the Nilons were able to buy a home near 20th and Spruce Streets in Boulder, not far from the area of town where racial minorities had historically been allowed to live.  

Despite all of this, Nilon later recalled, most Boulderites were friendly and helpful. A local hardware store extended him credit even though he was new in town.

“People were basically open and honest,” he said, but he was keenly aware that he and Mildred were among the very few Black people in Boulder. In the 1950s, he recalled teaching one or two Black students during his first year here. Later, he recalled seeing some female and graduate students who were Black.

In 1962, the university hired Mildred, who was CU’s first Black librarian. In the late 1960s, Nilon launched and became chair of the university’s Black Studies Program, when, at a time, he estimated there were about 100 Black students on campus. (Much later, the Black Studies Program became part of the university’s Department of Ethnic Studies.)

Tom Windham, one of those few Black students, recalls meeting Mildred Nilon in 1969, when she stopped him in the stacks of Norlin Library to ask about him—where he was from, what he studies, what were his goals.

Windham, who earned his PhD in psychology in 1975, said the Nilons went out of their way to help students.

“The Nilons had a way of connecting with students,” said Windham. “When they saw you, they really saw you. They wanted you to know that just by being who you are, you deserved respect and opportunity.”

The Nilons were active on and off campus in the United Black Action Committee, the United Black Women of Boulder Valley, Housing for Everyone through Local Programs, the Town and Country YWCA Board, the Mental Health Board and Historic Boulder. And they helped to desegregate Boulder housing.

As the Nilons worked to diversify the campus, their efforts generated mixed reactions from the administration. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, then-President Joseph Smiley called for a campuswide memorial to King. Smiley also allocated $180,000 for a summer program to help introduce prospective students, most of whom were non-white, to the joys and rigors of college.

Nilon passed away 1991, and Mildred passed away in 2017. Their legacy lives on through an education scholarship created in their honor, the Charles and Mildred Nilon Endowed Teacher Education Scholarship. The fund supports CU Boulder students who are pursuing teacher licensure and who are committed to advancing educational opportunities in under-resourced schools, especially those serving African American communities.

Sources: Our Own Generation: The Tumultuous Years, University of Colorado 1963-1976, CU Boulder School of Education, and Boulder Daily Camera.