Celebrating Black Women’s History in Boulder

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Young Black woman in white dress and corsage
Lucile Berkeley Buchanan was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Colorado. Buchanan Archives – http://www.dailycamera.com/cu-news/ci_31745157/lucile-berkeley-buchanan

A Legacy of Achievement

Hundreds of Black women made their mark on Boulder County in the 19th and 20th centuries, though their contributions have been repeatedly overlooked.  From the earliest years of non-Indigenous settlement after the Civil War, through the decades of growth after World War II, Black women in Boulder County pursued higher education and careers, founded businesses, raised families, and built and sustained churches and civic groups.

Young Black women also contributed to the YWCA movement in Boulder County, forming a YWCA-sponsored Phyllis Wheatley Girls Reserve club in the 1920s.  These young women supported the Boulder community through charitable work, 20 years before the YWCA desegregated local branches in 1946.

In recognition of Black History Month, and to deepen our understanding of Boulder County’s history, we recognize three of the many talented and determined Black women who have shaped our community.

A Scholar’s Story, Lost and Found

Lucile Berkeley Buchanan was a double trailblazer.  Born in 1884 in Denver, she became the first Black person to graduate with a two-year degree from what is now the University of Northern Colorado (in 1905), and she was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder (in 1918).  Yet, because of her race, she was barred by CU from receiving her diploma onstage at graduation.  She vowed never to return to CU – a promise she kept until her death at age 105.

Buchanan’s story was largely unknown until Polly E. Bugros McLean, a CU Boulder associate professor of media studies, began more than a decade of extensive research.  Dr. McLean’s resulting book, Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High, recounts Buchanan’s pioneering life.  Thanks to Dr. McLean’s efforts to correct history, CU finally recognized Buchanan’s achievement and established a scholarship in her name in the Women and Gender Studies program.

Group of Black families at luncheon
Members of Boulder’s Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church holding a Victory Mothers Club Social, ca. 1940s. Lillian Beckley Wheeler is at right, standing. Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder.

A Groundbreaking Businesswoman

Boulder’s small but vibrant Black community attracted new residents in the early 20th century, including Lillian Beckley Wheeler, Colorado’s first Black licensed female barber. Wheeler and her husband, Thomas, moved their family from Mississippi to Boulder in 1924, buying a home on 19th St. in the “Little Rectangle” neighborhood.  Bounded by 19th Street, Goss Street, 23rd Street and Canyon Boulevard, this neighborhood was the center of Boulder’s Black community, in part due to housing discrimination elsewhere in the city.

Wheeler worked as a licensed beautician in Boulder, later deciding to move into the male-dominated field of barbering.  She received her Colorado barber’s license in 1943, and later opened her own barbershop in a Black-owned shopping center in Denver.  She also worked as an educator, teaching Adult Education and Recreation at Boulder High School.  Historian Melvin Collier has profiled Wheeler on his website, RootsRevealed.com.

Refusing Limitations

Growing up just blocks from Alabama State University, an HBCU, Mildred Nilon developed a deep appreciation for education and racial justice.  When she and her husband, Dr. Charles Nilon, moved to Boulder in 1956, they refused to be limited by housing discrimination. The Nilons overcame pressure from neighbors and real estate agents and purchased a home outside the “Little Rectangle” neighborhood, paving the way for other Black families to live wherever they wanted to in Boulder.

Nilon’s husband became CU’s first Black faculty member, and Nilon soon followed him to the university as its first Black librarian.  She eventually rose to become the library’s Assistant Director of Public Services. Meanwhile, she served as president of United Black Women of Boulder Valley and advocated with other Black parents to ensure their children were given full opportunities for college-track coursework in Boulder schools.  She was one of several local leaders who helped re-establish Boulder’s community YWCA (later YWCA Boulder County) in 1958. Following their retirement from CU, the Nilons were honored with an education scholarship in their name.

For the stories of more remarkable Black women in Boulder County history, check out the book A Legacy of Missing Pieces: The Voices of Black Women of Boulder County, edited by Polly E. Bugros McLean.

YWCA USA is celebrating Black Herstory Month by highlighting impactful Black women in film, sports, activism, music, STEM, health care, and government, among other fields. Visit https://www.ywca.org/get-involved/celebrating-black-women/.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has provided a list of staff recommendations for books, television, film, music and podcasts that explore and celebrate Black culture: https://www.naacpldf.org/ldf-culture-recommendations/.