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REMEMBERING CU-BOULDER’s AFRICAN AMERICAN PIONEERS

Many African American students, faculty and staff have helped write CU’s history over the decades. These outstanding pioneers were innovators, leaders and activists. Among them, Athletic Hall of Famers who not only excelled in athletics but also in academics.

Charles Durham Campbell
The very first African American to graduate—with a bachelor’s degree in math in 1912—was Charles Durham Campbell from Georgetown. After serving in World War I he went on to become a research mineralogist in Denver.

Born to emancipated slaves from plantations in Virginia, Lucile Berkley Buchanan was the first African American woman to graduate from CU. That was in 1918.

Regrettably, the University did not allow her the right to walk across the stage with her classmates to accept her diploma.  Buchanan’s mother, two sisters and a niece came to campus to watch commencement—a supposedly happy occasion.

She sat proudly in Macky Auditorium waiting for her name to be called. Even though she completed her studies with honors, her name was never called. Nor was she mentioned in the 1918 CU yearbook. (See accompanying story.)

Ruth Cave Flowers
Ruth Cave Flowers completed her credits for graduation at Boulder Prep School but was not awarded a high school degree. CU President George Norlin—emphasizing that CU was open to all who qualified—admitted Flowers who graduated from CU in 1924.

Unlike Buchanan, she was allowed to walk at graduation and went on to work as a teacher, lawyer and professor in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina before returning to teach in the Boulder Valley School District. 

Her son, Sonny Flowers, earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from CU, and was a 1960s champion for campus diversity. Later, he became an attorney in Boulder.

Claude Walton
In 1936—more than eight decades ago—Claude Walton came to a largely segregated Boulder where he was not allowed to dine in a restaurant.  

A discus thrower, Walton was CU’s first African American student-athlete and its first All-American. He endured segregation, but his patient demeanor helped pave the way for those who followed.  

One of CU’s greatest and most influential student-athletes, Mr. Walton was inducted into the CU Athletic Hall of Fame 70 years later.

David Bolen
Named the 1948 Rocky Mountain area athlete of the year (Track & Field) and the first CU Olympian, David Bolen’s time in Boulder was often challenging. He was not allowed to stay in the men’s dormitories—and once had to drive 30 miles to find a barber who would cut his hair.                                               

After graduating in 1950 with degrees in economics and business administration, he joined the U.S. Department of State—as a political economist/advisor both in Washington, D.C. and at U.S embassies throughout the world, 

He was subsequently appointed by President Nixon as ambassador to the South African nations of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. His help in freeing Nelson Mandela from prison ultimately led to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.  

Later, President Carter appointed him ambassador to East Germany where he helped lay the groundwork for the fall of the Berlin Wall.    

Charles Nilon
In 1956, Charles Nilon became CU’s first African-American Professor Emeritus and was on the faculty of the English department for three decades. During that time, Professor Nilon spearheaded the Black Studies program.

Later, his wife Mildred joined the Library Department. Active both on and off campus, the couple served on numerous committees and advisory panels. Because of their own experiences within the community, they effected changes in Boulder’s segregated housing patterns.

The Endowed Teacher Education Scholarship Fund, established on October 9, 2017, continues their legacy. 

Penfield Tate II
1968 Law School grad Penfield Tate II was Boulder’s first and only African-American mayor. He served on the Boulder City Council from 1971-1976 and was elected mayor by his colleagues, serving from 1974-1976. 

Known as a civil rights champion and leading advocate for marginalized communities, Tate helped pass the city’s Human Rights Ordinance that protects LGBT residents against illegal discrimination. This ordinance cost him re-election in 1976.

Despite Boulder’s identity as a "liberal bastion," it wasn’t ready for his cutting-edge ideas, according to his son, Penfield Tate III, an active Denver attorney and politician.  

“The backlash against this ordinance changed my father’s life and ended his political career.”

Mary Frances Berry
When Mary Frances Berry was appointed chancellor in 1976, she became the first African-American woman to head a major research university.  In her short time here, she committed CU to a path toward diversity it continues to follow in recruiting faculty and students. Chancellor Berry went on to become chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Rachel Noel
Locally, leaders like Rachel Noel, the first African-American member of the CU Board of Regents (1976), bravely integrated Denver Public Schools as a member of its school board despite school bus arsons and death threats to her and her family.


FROM THE CHANCELLOR: 

Every day our faculty, staff and students of color continue their legacy in advocating for inclusion, diversity and excellence in our community of learning.  

The struggle for equality and justice for all—the eternal American struggle—remains as pressing today as in times past, and rests squarely upon our shoulders as much as it ever has.

—Philip DiStefano


SHE WAS CU's FIRST BLACK FEMALE GRAD: A PIONEER WITHOUT A HEADSTONE   

It was this headline in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News that captured the attention of Polly McLean, causing her to spend more than a decade exhuming the story of Lucile Berkley Buchanan. 

CU Boulder Associate Professor of Media Studies, McLean wrote:  “A desire to understand the University’s reasoning for dismissing her achievement motivated me to dig deeper—and thus began my search for Lucile.”

It took 10 years and covered 10 states. “It was like doing detective work,” she says. Going into dark spaces—having to prove my legitimacy in African American communities.”

A life of struggle, education and hope:   One of Lucile’s sisters, Laura, committed suicide in 1899 while attempting to become a teacher. Lucile too faced discrimination as she strove to teach. 

This daughter of freed slaves who rose above bleak circumstances became a lifelong educator—with a career that spanned historic Black high schools in five states.  

At the May 2018 CU commencement McLean symbolically accepted Lucile’s diploma, and the long-overdue recognition officially withheld for a century.                                                             

“It felt very surreal,” McLean said. “I did wonder how would the quiet, dignified Lucile respond to the moment where she was finally front and center at her alma mater?” 

READ HER STORY: 

By Polly Bugros McLean:  REMEMBERING LUCILE:  A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High.  Sold at the Boulder Bookstore and Tattered Cover Bookstores in Denver. 

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