Women’s history snapshot: Lucile Berkeley Buchanan graduated in 1918 but wasn’t allowed to walk across the stage with other graduates because she was Black
History overlooked Lucile Berkeley Buchanan, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Colorado. A dogged CU journalist brought her back to the fore.
Tipped off by a newspaper story, Polly McLean, a CU Boulder associate professor of media studies, spent years 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, the first Black woman to graduate from CU did so in 1918.
In 2018, a century after Buchanan’s alma mater barred her from walking across the Macky Auditorium stage to accept her degree, Buchanan was more fully recognized. During the May 2018 commencement, Philip P. DiStefano, the campus chancellor, recognized Buchanan. McLean symbolically accepted Buchanan’s degree. Onstage.
Thus it was that the first African American woman to graduate was honored because of the efforts of McLean, the first Black woman to earn tenure at CU Boulder and the first Black woman to head an academic unit.
McLean preserved a record of Buchanan’s trailblazing life in a book, Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family's Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High.
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.
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, at the age of 105.
McLean found the story by chance: In 2001, she was doing background research for an assignment she’d given her women’s studies class.
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, bore this headline: “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 incorrect record “wherever it appears.” Eight years later, the official record was still wrong.
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 more than 10 years.
By the time McLean was on the story, Doris and Larry Harris had divorced and moved, taking Buchanan’s memorabilia with them. With tenacity and cajolery, McLean unearthed a portrait of the pioneer.
Buchanan applied for her first teaching job in 1905 in a company coal town in Huerfano County, Colorado. She didn’t get the job, but 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.
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.
We remember Lucile Berkeley Buchanan not only to honor her life, but also to reflect on what we once did and what we could now learn.”
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 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.
Noting that Buchanan did not live to see the university admit its error, James W.C. White, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, observed:
“These gestures are symbolic, but symbols matter. However meager and tardy, the university’s recognition is a kind of reparation. We remember Lucile Berkeley Buchanan not only to honor her life, but also to reflect on what we once did and what we could now learn.”