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A journey to chronicle the life of the first black female graduate from CU became a wider historical mission

The fascinating life of Lucile Berkeley Buchanan Jones opened the door to examine the emergence of the African-American middle class from its roots in slavery

Polly E. Bugros McLean is associate professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she has served as director of Women and Gender Studies and as the faculty associate to the chancellor. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Chancellor’s Committee on Women Award, the Chancellor’s Equity and Excellence Award, Robert L. Stearns Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for teaching excellence. In 1999 and 2000 she was a Senior Fulbright Scholar to the University of Namibia.

The following is an excerpt from “Remembering Lucile.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Award finalist for History

 A CEMETERY’S MEANDERINGS

In the spring of 2004, I paid the first of many visits to Fairmount Cemetery. Built in 1890 on 280 acres, Fairmount is Denver’s second oldest cemetery and the final resting place of a plethora of Denver’s early pioneers. With a map in hand I went in search of Block 52, Lot 28, Section 8. Once there, I kept walking from headstone to headstone, desperately searching for Lucile’s name, to no avail. It wasn’t easy walking across the uneven dirt of the final resting places of so many people; I felt like an intruder. However, I kept reminding myself that cemeteries are the keepers of time, continuously holding what we once held dear. I could see that for some, the memory remained; for others, the memory had faded. But in a very personal and quiet way, I began to recognize that I was walking through Colorado’s early Black history—these early pioneers who had lived in all their richness and mystery.

After a while I discovered a small, pink, upright granite headstone engraved with the names of Lucile’s third cousin, Travis N. Buchanan, and his wife, Clarabell. But still no Lucile. I was just about at my wits end when I spotted a large gray granite headstone with the name Jarrett featured prominently on the top in large block letters and the name of Lucile’s sister, Hattie, and her brother-in-law Elias below. It was the largest headstone in the area, clearly reflecting the wealth and prominence of those whose final resting places it marked. I recalled that Lucile was interred in the Jarretts’ plot. But I was still thinking about traditional markings, which would be on the front of the headstone. Clearly, Lucile was not there. 

Author Polly E. Bugros McLean.

As I circled the headstone, I noticed an engraving at the bottom right corner of the back of the headstone. In bold caps were the words “LUCILE B. JONES, JUNE 13, 1884–NOV. 10 1989–FIRST BLACK WOMAN GRADUATE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO.”

Getting Lucile’s name engraved on the tombstone had been the work of Frederick “Fred” John Walsen, the grandson of early pioneer Fred Walsen, who in 1873 founded the town of Walsenburg, Colorado. Born almost a year prior to Lucile’s graduation from the University of Colorado, on June 9, 1917, Fred, a fellow alumnus and journalism major, was an avid history buff. After Robert Jackson’s story about Lucile’s burial in an unmarked grave broke in the Rocky Mountain News, Fred immediately went into action. He contacted Fairmount to correct what he considered an injustice and to properly memorialize a piece of history, and the cemetery staff negotiated the deal with Lucile’s niece, Evelyn, who by now had accepted the idea of Lucile’s internment in the family plot.

During a quiet afternoon at Fairmount Cemetery, I began to think of the need to remember and honor the past. The lives of Lucile’s family and of those interred around them and the granite headstones that mark their silent history. But what Fred did is remarkable.

As the last living relative in the Walsen line, his final resting place is in Fairmount’s historic Millionaires Row in a large and impressive mausoleum, with his father and the WALSEN name prominently featured. As a final altruistic act, he made sure that Lucile’s name and contribution to the university and to Colorado history will live on for generations to come.

IT’S A WRAP

Lucile Berkeley Buchanan Jones was a woman of strong constitution and substance, the daughter of pioneering emancipated slaves who traveled west to Colorado in order to forge a new life in the mile-high city. Her parents brought a few customs from Virginia, including the tradition of naming their children after a family member. Sarah and James’s first child born in the new frontier was named after her mother’s father, Edmund Berkeley, and her half-sister, Lucy. Through the years, Lucy (Lucile) Berkeley Buchanan would never forget to remind people who her grandfather was.

Lucile’s life straddled two centuries. Over the course of ten-and-a-half decades, she bore witness to many historic events, which would shape not just Colorado and U.S. history but world history as well. She lived through the Progressive era, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, the Vietnam War, the rise of the silent majority that propelled Richard Nixon into the presidency, and the Watergate scandal that brought him down. When crayons were invented in 1903, she was a high school senior in Denver.

She became a flapper in the 1920s by first bobbing her hair in Kansas City. She lived through thirty-four major wars and conflicts in which the United States was directly involved. She was there for the birth of Coca Cola, Lifesavers, drinking straws, frozen foods, Scotch tape, freeze-dried coffee, and so much more.

“Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High.”

She saw the onset of the counterculture in the 1960s, which gave way to the New Left, feminism, civil rights, environmental activism, gay liberation, and the Black Power movement. She listened on her radio when James Brown belted out “Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn.” She was mindful of the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy, and sadly their deaths through an assassin’s bullet. She experienced travel by wagon and rail, and saw the invention of the automobile and the airplane. She grew and matured along with the radio, the phonograph, photographic film, motion pictures, and television, as well as the technologies that would create the internet. She survived the brutal influenza pandemic of the twentieth century, which killed more than forty million people. She saw twenty presidents take office and lived through the assassination of two—William McKinley in 1901 and John F. Kennedy in 1963. A staunch Republican, she got to see that after women received the right to vote in 1920, seven Republicans she voted for were elected president.

She lived in areas of the South where Blacks were brutally lynched, and she followed the writings of journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who lived close to Lucile in Chicago and worked for the Chicago Defender when Lucile settled there in 1925. She observed the development of every key Black civil rights organization: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909 (of which she was a member); the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, an organization to which her brother-in-law, Elias Jarrett, belonged; the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960.

As a student attending the University of Colorado during World War I, she witnessed the significant impact the war had on the academic life and how administrators, faculty, staff, and students contributed to the war effort. On the other hand, as a more mature student who had lived in the Jim Crow south, she was more skilled in battling the racial infringements she faced on the campus, in the classroom, and in the Boulder community. Back home in Denver, she read in the local Black newspaper, the Colorado Statesman, about the rise of Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1916 and its commitment to racial pride and economic autonomy.

Lucile left an indelible imprint philosophically, professionally, and personally on the lives of the students she taught in segregated public schools in Hot Springs and Little Rock, Arkansas, Kansas City, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. Most surprising is that at the sixteenth-class reunion, celebrating the 114 years of existence of the Langston High School in Hot Springs where Lucile taught, the local newspaper, the Sentinel-Record, covered the story by reflecting on the six teachers who “left a lasting impression on the community.” Lucile Buchanan was one of the six.

Though remaining within the boundaries of race, gender, and class of her time, she embarked on a life of adventure, achievement, and risk-taking, marked by innovation, self-reliance, and independence—qualities that were the hallmark of the West. As Viola Garlington, who first met Lucile when Lucile was 103 years old, states, “She knew how to make it work.”

Lucile was a daughter of the state of Colorado whose triumphs and failures went unnoticed, leaving me the opportunity to fill a void in the chronicles of Black history—from Virginia to Colorado and beyond. As I began the search for Lucile I discovered that there was something magical about her story that had a way of touching and staying with people. In many ways, her story became the story of the people I met along the way and the web of relationships my research cultivated. At times, I thought it might have had something to do with her being “first”: the first Black woman to graduate from two of Colorado’s prestigious institutions of higher education (Colorado State University and the University of Colorado), the first recording secretary of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Conventions in 1932. But Lucile’s story was more than being the “first.”

As I examined what she left behind (photos, postcards, her academic regalia, and other memorabilia) while walking through her house with its Victorian touches; examined the books she read, studied, and scribbled in; read the letters written to her over a hundred years ago; reviewed the choices she made in her personal and professional life; visited the plantations where her parents were enslaved and where they were able to forge a strong and durable family life, which they brought with them to Colorado, I discovered that I was not writing an ordinary biography. I was exploring her life through the complexities and meanings she left behind and through the communities she was part of. I was looking into the lives of those she influenced (e.g., pioneering Black journalist Lucile Bluford) and those who influenced her (e.g., W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and Luise Mühlbach) and, in an odd way, those who touched her also touched me. I was blending biography, life, and social history, coming to know and understand her story within the historical framework of the very difficult periods of U.S. history through which she lived and the one in which I am presently living in 2018.

Wherever Lucile’s family lived and whomever they touched in eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth century America, they affected and were affected by the collective consciousness of people across racial, class, and gender divides. Lucile and her siblings were therefore shaped by the histories of her parents (as slaves and free people); by the Whites they toiled and toyed with (the plantation overlords); by a shared family history with their enslavers (the case of Lucile’s mother and her White slave-holding father); the White middle-class communities as well as the racially restricted communities they called home; the White teachers who inspired her through formal education; the Black press that provided an informal, Black-centered, thought-provoking education on local, national, and international occurrences; Black organizations that lauded the educational achievements of Denver’s Black youth (e.g., Inter-Graduate Student Association); and the Black church that provided comfort, hope, connections across state lines, and spiritual, moral, and practical needs for the community but became the epicenter of activism.

In an unassuming way the Buchanans were able to achieve economic mobility to earn middle-class status within a decade of their arrival in Denver. But that achievement came with a price for their daughters who choose teaching as a career. In Lucile’s case, due to the historical racism in the professional labor market in Denver, she was not welcomed and left Denver taking her passion to serve, spent forty-three years (1905–48) helping Blacks in the Jim Crow South close the opportunity gap.

I began my search for Lucile by questioning who validates the history makers, especially at a university. At the same time, I was intrigued by memory—whether individual, group, family, or public in historical thinking. But Lucile’s story sharpened my understanding of the extent to which historical memory is forged and forgotten, whether as the result of the acceptance of local mythology, incomplete research, or the prejudices of those who decide who or what constitutes history. I needed people’s memory to help reconstruct Lucile’s life journeys. I needed the mistress’s plantation diary to understand how she reacted to the defiance of slave and freed women during the end of the Civil War and in Reconstruction. I needed Lucile’s notes about the Republican party to understand her support of the party even in the midst of Black abandonment. I needed to understand her insistence on being called Mrs. Jones even after she walked away from an abusive relationship. I needed to understand how our lives intersected in the face of overt and polite racism in an elite and privileged city and in an institution of higher learning bearing the same. I needed to understand the communicative practices she employed to maintain her dignity across racial boundaries.

Lucile made history and changed history not through headlines and not on a national stage, but through her quiet, sometimes firm, unassuming ways, and always, always, on her own terms. And as I look back on my journey through her life, I am reminded of the words of writer and editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt, who said, “some people make headlines while others make history.”

Lucile made history.

Buy “Remembering Lucile” at BookBar.
Interview with “Remembering Lucile” author Polly E. Bugros McLean.

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