Ruth Alice Lucas was the first African American woman to attain the rank of full Colonel in the United States Air Force and was a life-long advocate for higher education. Born in Stamford, Connecticut on November 28, 1920 to Walter and Amanda Lucas, she was highly influenced by her father, who she described as “a hardworking, proud man who encouraged independence.”
Ruth attended Stamford High School and was an extremely bright student. At a young age she had an interest in helping others succeed at their education and was a tutor for other students – something she continued to do at her time in college. She enrolled in Tuskegee Institute in 1938 and graduated in1942 with a degree in education and a minor in sociology. With World War 2 in full swing at the time of her graduation, Ruth knew that she wanted to do her part for the war effort. She joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps when it was formed in July 1942.
The first group of women to be accepted into the WAAC were trained at WAAC Officer Candidate School at Fort Des Moines in Iowa. Lucas was accepted into the first candidate training class of 440 women chosen from over 35,000 applicants. The forty black women in the class were placed in a separate platoon. They attended classes and mess with the other officer candidates, but their service clubs, beauty shops, barracks, etc. were separate. After graduating from Officer Candidate School, Lucas became the WAC Squadron Commander of the 463rd AF Base Unit at Fort Francis E. Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming where she received several commendations for her leadership.
The National Security Act of 1947 made the Air Force a separate military service. That year, some Women’s Army Corps members, including Lucas, continued serving in the Army but performed Air Force duties. In 1948, Lucas attended Air Force Officer Training School and in 1950, she attended Air Tactical School.
Lucas was still an educator at heart. While stationed in Tokyo, Japan from 1951-1954 as the Chief of the Awards Division, she spent her time off teaching English to Japanese children and college students.
In 1952 she was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for her “exemplary conduct in the performance of duty, and devotion to the best interests of the military service.” As the Officer in Charge of the Awards and Decorations Branch for the Far East Air Forces. The citation for the award noted that “her reorganization of procedures effected the most expeditious processing of awards through her section, and was instrumental in maintaining a uniform, equitable awards program which had the direct bearing on the morale of the United Nations personnel.”
After her time abroad, she returned stateside to Continental Air Command at Mitchel Air Force Base in New York and by 1956 had been promoted to the rank of Major. While stationed in New York, Lucas received a master’s degree in educational psychology from Columbia University in 1957.
In the early 1960’s Lucas was transferred to Washington, D.C., where she held numerous posts relating to research and education. Her work included setting up programs that would raise the educational levels of servicemen. In a 1969 interview in Ebony magazine, Lucas said that, “among all the servicemen who enter the military annually, about 45,000 of them read below a fifth-grade level, and more than 30 percent of those men are black.” Her goal was to spark their interest in education. Lucas became known as an expert in this field. In the late 1960’s she was the Assistant for General Education and Counseling Services in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Education at the Pentagon.
Retired Master Sergeant Alfonzo Hall, who served in the same division as Lucas in the 1950’s, stated in a Washington Post article that, “She saw the big picture. Every day, every month and every quarter, we men saw results. She ate, slept and breathed training. She believed it was critical for military and civilian life. She looked at all people as people and tried to help them all.”
What started as a way to serve her country during WWII became a career for Lucas. “There were times when I thought about getting out,” she said, “but I decided that I could best utilize my training right here in the service. One year slipped into another, and, well, when my promotion came last year, it just seemed to cap all my previous experiences.”
In 1968, Lucas became the first African American woman in the Air Force to be promoted to the rank of Colonel. At the time, she was the highest-ranking African American woman in the Air Force – a record she held until 1991.
Not one to sit idle in her retirement, Lucas continued to encourage the higher education of young students. She became the Director of Urban Services at Washington Technical Institute (now the District of Columbia). She later became Dean of Physical Science, Engineering & Technology at that institute. She was also active in the Greater Washington D.C. Urban League.
Lucas passed away on March 23, 2013 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.