First in Her Field: The Legacy of Col. Ruth A. Lucas
Feb 13, 2023
During Black History Month, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation is profiling historical Black figures who thrived and increased opportunities for others despite racial, gender and other barriers. We celebrate the contributions and impact of these “Equity Trailblazers” who helped light the way to make our community a stronger, more equitable place to live.
With a deeply rooted passion for helping others succeed through education, Stamford’s Ruth A. Lucas exemplified what it means to be an equity trailblazer.
Perhaps best known for becoming the first Black woman to be promoted to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Col. Lucas’ legacy extends far beyond her rank.
Born in Stamford in 1920, Lucas graduated from Stamford High School and went on to earn a degree in education from Tuskegee Institute. Her dedication to education and belief that literacy and learning were crucial to personal advancement became her lifelong passion.
World War II was breaking out at the time Lucas was graduating Tuskegee and she was compelled to serve — enlisting in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) when it was formed in 1942. Lucas went on to be part of the highly selective first candidate training class.
Of the 35,000 applicants, only 440 women were chosen. Of those, 40 were Black. Lucas and the other Black trainees took classes and dined with the other candidates, but their barracks, clubs and personal services were racially segregated.
Despite this, Lucas thrived in candidate school and, upon completion, became a Squadron Commander. Soon after, the Air Force was recognized as its own military service and Lucas eventually attended Air Force Officer Training and furthered her military career.
A Passion for Literacy
After various posts abroad – and earning numerous commendations — Lucas was reassigned to New York, where she soon achieved the rank of Major. While there, she earned her master’s degree in educational psychology from Columbia University.
In the early 1960s, Lucas’ expertise in education and psychology brought her to the Pentagon, where she served as Assistant for General Education and Counseling Services. In this role, she oversaw the development and implementation of literacy programs and support services to raise the education level of servicemen, many of whom could not read.
At the time, roughly 45,000 servicemen — more than 30 percent of whom were Black — entered the military without being able to read at the fifth-grade level.
“Right now, if I have any aim, it’s just to reach these men, to interest them in education and to motivate them to continue on,” Col. Lucas said in a November 1969 feature in Ebony magazine. “And sometimes you have to do all sorts of things to get this accomplished.”
Education and Integrity
Col. Lucas remained active and involved in education even after her retirement in 1970. She oversaw outreach to high school students and other youth as Director of Urban Services at the University of the District of Columbia and ultimately earned a dean’s chair. She also worked as an educational advisor and consultant to several organizations, including the Washington Urban League and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
When Col. Lucas died on March 23, 2013, her rank called for fully military honors at her interment at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Her courage and strength were an inspiration to all us women who followed after her,” Air Force chaplain Maj. Robin Stephenson-Bratcher said at the ceremony. “She changed so many people’s lives with her focus on education and integrity.”
Col. Ruth A Lucas held the distinction of serving as the Air Force’s highest-ranking African American woman until 1991 and was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 2017.
“[Lucas] never accepted the injustice and prejudice of her time, and today we too must look for new ways in which we can better our world,” said Stephenson-Bratcher.
Don’t miss Part II in our Black History Month series spotlighting Connecticut leaders who helped shape the future. Have a suggestion for an Equity Trailblazer from Fairfield County we might feature? Email us at email@example.com.
Inductee: Ruth A. Lucas – Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame
Air Force’s Education Expert – Ebony Magazine, November 1969
Ruth A. Lucas, first Black female Air Force colonel – The Washington Post, April 27, 2013