Long overlooked, the first black woman to graduate from the University of Colorado comes alive in a new book by CU Boulder’s Polly McLean.
In the narrow columns of newspaper type, Polly McLean sensed a bigger story. A story with layers of triumph, heartbreak and betrayal that revealed hard truths about the history of the University of Colorado and America itself.
For decades, CU Boulder’s official history recorded that the first black woman to graduate from the university, Ruth Cave Flowers (A&S’24), earned her degree in 1924. But in 2001 McLean learned from an old newspaper report that the first had actually graduated in 1918. Her name was Lucile Berkeley Buchanan Jones (Ger1918), and she’d lived to age 105.
By the time McLean, a CU Boulder media studies professor, read the Rocky Mountain News story, it was nearly a decade old. And yet Lucile remained obscure, even at CU.
CU’s first black woman graduate finally received the respect due her thanks to the dogged work of McLean, a fellow CU pioneer.
“That set me on this journey,” McLean, the campus’ first tenured black woman, said at the inaugural Lucile Berkeley Buchanan Lecture in April.
Over the next decade, McLean exhumed Lucile’s story, fragment by elusive fragment, elevating her to her rightful place in CU’s history. In a book to be published this summer, Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High (University of Colorado Press), McLean brings Lucile to life and corrects the record in painstaking, at times painful, detail.
McLean’s work also led CU Boulder to make a public gesture of atonement for a searing act of bigotry 100 years ago, when Lucile was barred from walking across the Macky Auditorium stage to receive her degree. At Commencement 2018, the university invited McLean to accept Lucile’s diploma, a move Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano called “long overdue.”
The symmetry was striking and poignant: CU’s first black woman graduate finally received the respect due her thanks to the dogged work of McLean, a fellow CU pioneer.
Child of Slaves
The daughter of emancipated slaves, Lucile Berkeley Buchanan was born in 1884 in Denver. Her family lived on land purchased from P.T. Barnum, the circus mogul and cynic known for his “sucker born every minute” quip.
Lucile became the first person in her family to graduate from not one, but two, Colorado universities: In 1905, she was the first African American to graduate with a two-year degree from what now is the University of Northern Colorado.
After a long career as a school teacher, mainly in Arkansas and Illinois, she lived in Denver until her death in 1989, when she was interred in an unmarked grave.
Lucile entered Polly McLean’s life in 2001, as McLean researched an assignment she’d given her women’s studies class: Uncovering the history of black women in Boulder.
During a visit to the CU Heritage Center in Old Main, McLean read a 1993 Rocky Mountain News article about her that carried the arresting headline “She was CU’s first black female grad: A pioneer buried without a headstone.”
The paper quoted Doris and Larry Harris, who had purchased Lucile’s Denver home after the state of Colorado forced her into a nursing home. The Harrises noted that they’d bought the home, a mini Queen Anne on Raleigh Street, for $70,000. They wondered why the estate hadn’t yielded enough money for a headstone. (A stone Lucile had purchased for herself long before her death had been destroyed, and it appears the publicly appointed conservator of the estate didn’t order a new one.)
The Rocky also quoted a CU spokeswoman saying the university would correct its records to reflect Lucile’s status as CU’s first black woman graduate. But eight years after the story ran, the records were still inaccurate.
By the time McLean was on the case, the Harrises had divorced and moved, taking with them boxes of memorabilia Lucile had left behind. But, in bits and pieces, with tenacity and cajolery, McLean fashioned a compelling portrait.
If They Knock You Down
Lucile Berkeley Buchanan Jones’ story is part triumph, part tragedy.
One of her sisters, Laura, committed suicide in 1899 while attempting to become a teacher. The Rocky covered the story under the headline “Color discrimination drove a girl to suicide.”
Lucile, too, faced discrimination. She had applied for her first teaching job in 1905 in a company coal town in Huerfano County, Colo. She didn’t get the position, despite the work of a newspaper editor who condemned the racial prejudice thwarting her. So, Lucile left Colorado and taught in Little Rock and Hot Springs, Ark.
In 1915 she enrolled at the University of Chicago, studying German, Greek and British poetry. Returning to Colorado, she continued with German at CU. “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.
Her story is part triumph, part tragedy.
Also, Lucile knew the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociologist, historian and activist who had studied in Berlin and had an affinity for Germany. Du Bois argued that blacks needed a liberal arts education to battle racial inequality.
By spring 1918 — six years after Charles Durham Campbell (Math 1912) became CU’s first African American graduate — Lucile had earned a CU degree, too. Her mother, two sisters and a niece traveled to campus for commencement, held in Macky Auditorium. There were 168 members in the class. Lucile was the lone African American. But she was never called to the stage to receive her diploma. Administrators instead sent a classmate to slip it to her offstage.
Embittered, Lucile vowed never to return to campus, and never did.
After taking a job as a teacher in Kansas City, she married John Dotha Jones in 1926 and took his name. Within a decade he’d abandoned her. She filed for divorce, claiming he’d committed adultery and been cruel and habitually drunk.
Lucile later told friends and family he’d been killed in a duel. In fact, McLean writes, Jones died in 1965, after living with another man for 22 years in a home they purchased together.
In 1937 Lucile again returned to school, enrolling in graduate studies in English literature at the University of Chicago. She was 53.
Lucile lived to be 105 years old.
She retired from teaching in 1949 and returned to Denver to live in the home built by her father, the former slave who became a teamster and street commissioner.
There she lived until she was 103, when Colorado Adult Protective Services deemed her a danger to herself and forcibly placed her in a nursing home. Lucile was blind and had no family willing or able to help. A court-appointed conservator sold her home and paid her bills.
Even in old age and confined to the nursing home, Lucile was a dutiful citizen. The Rocky interviewed her and other centenarian voters in 1988, when she was 104.
A lifelong Republican, Lucile told the Rocky that Franklin D. Roosevelt was 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, Lucile said: “Lincoln was a Republican. That’s all I need to know.”
Much of the historical material McLean unearthed came from dogged investigative reporting, which involved poring over musty public records and interviewing people around the country. Key information came from old newspapers, including black newspapers.
It was a newspaper story that helped ensure a headstone now carries her name. In 1993 Frederick John Walsen (Jour’39), grandson of the founder of Walsenburg, Colo., read the Rocky article that ultimately alerted McLean to Lucile. Walsen, who died in 2000, arranged and paid for Fairmont Cemetery in Denver to add her name to an existing family headstone.
It reads: “Lucile B. Jones, June 13, 1884 — Nov. 10, 1989 — First Black Woman Graduate University of Colorado.”
Photo courtesy the Buchanan Archives/Book jacket courtesy University of Colorado Press