Ruth Alice Lucas (1920-2013)

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Ruth Alice Lucas, who overcame race and sex barriers back in 1968 by becoming the first African American woman to be promoted to the rank of full colonel in the United States Air Force, was born in Stamford, Connecticut on November 28, 1920. By the time she retired from the Service in 1970, Lucas remained the highest-ranking black woman in the Air Force. The Defense Meritorious Service Medal was among her military decorations.

Lucas was educated at what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama, studying on a scholarship and majoring in education with a minor in sociology. At the same time, she taught English at the school.

Shortly after graduation in 1942, Lucas joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) where she found herself among the few black women to attend what is now the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. When the United States Air Force was formed in 1947, Lucas transferred from the Army to the new armed services branch.

The young Air Force officer transferred to Headquarters Far East Air Force Base in Tokyo, Japan from 1951 to 1954, where she became chief of the Awards Division; Lucas could be found teaching English to Japanese children and college students during her off-duty hours.

She returned stateside, receiving a master’s degree in educational psychology from Columbia University in 1957 before being transferred to a new post in the nation’s capitol in the early 1960s. While in Washington, D.C., Lucas held a number of posts, most of them related to research and education. By the time of her promotion to the rank of colonel in 1968, she was the assistant for general education and counseling services in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for education.

Her job was to set up programs that would raise the educational levels of servicemen. That entailed establishing pre-high school programs for service personnel reading at a less than fifth-grade level. Lucas said her goal was to spark their interest in education in order to get them to continue their education.

In an Ebony magazine interview in 1969, the new colonel said that about 45,000 of those entering the military each year read below a fifth-grade level, and that more than 30 percent of those men were black. She said her goal was to reach those men.

Following her retirement from the Air Force in 1970, Lucas remained active in education, as director of urban services at the new University of the District of Columbia where she designed outreach programs for high school students. At the time of her retirement, she was the assistant to the dean of the university’s College of Physical Science, Engineering and Technology.

Her post-retirement career also included membership on the Washington Urban League advisory panel on education, and a panel to improve testing techniques with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Col. Ruth Alice Lucas died March 23, 2013 at the age of 92 at her home in Washington, D.C. She is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.