Ruth Alice Lucas broke barriers when, in 1968, she became the first African-American woman to attain the rank of colonel in the Air Force. Her accomplishments were honored during her funeral services May 29 at Arlington National Cemetery.
As a crowd of uniformed airmen and loved ones looked on, Lucas was given a full military tribute befitting her rank, including six horses drawing a caisson, a firing party that saluted her with three rifle volleys, and music from the U.S. Air Force Band, The Washington Post reported.
Speaking at the graveside, Air Force chaplain, Maj. Robin Stephenson-Bratcher, said Col. Lucas, who died in her Washington, D.C. home on March 23 at the age of 92, should serve as an inspiration for others.
She “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,” Air Force chaplain Maj. Robin Stephenson-Bratcher said, according to the Post.
Lucas focused her advocacy and work on the areas of education and training, particularly in the area of literacy. In the Air Force she organized programs to improve the education of men in uniform.
“Most people don’t realize that among all the servicemen who enter the military annually, about 45,000 of them read below the fifth-grade level, and more than 30 percent of these men are Black,” Lucas said in a November 1969 issue of Ebony magazine, in which she was featured. “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.”
Lucas began teaching while studying at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she majored in education and minored in sociology. She later obtained a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
She enlisted in the armed forces in 1942 and joined the newly-created U.S. Air Force in 1947. The pioneering servicewoman became the first Black woman to enroll in the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va. When she retired from active duty in 1970, she was the highest-ranking African-American woman in the Air Force and worked in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for education at the Pentagon.
Even after leaving the Air Force, the colonel continued her efforts in education. Lucas was named director of urban services at the Washington Technical Institute, one of three institutions which merged to form the University of the District of Columbia. In 1994 she retired from the university after serving as assistant to the dean of the College of Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Technology.
“She changed so many people’s lives with her focus on education and integrity,” Stephenson-Bratcher said at her funeral. “Today we honor her spirit as we lay her to her final earthly resting place.”