Ruth A. Lucas, first black female Air Force colonel

Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly included cardiac arrest as a cause of death. According to the death certificate, the cause of death was “inanition.”

April 27, 2013

Ruth A. Lucas, the first African American woman in the Air Force to be promoted to the rank of colonel and who at the time of her retirement was the highest-ranking African American woman in the Air Force, died March 23 at her home in Washington. She was 92.

She had inanition, said her great-niece Laurie Ward.

Col. Lucas enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942 and was one the first black women to attend what is now the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. She held a variety of positions, mainly in research and education, before being named a colonel in 1968.

At the time of her promotion, Col. Lucas was a general education and counseling services assistant in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for education at the Pentagon. She created, organized and implemented special literacy programs aimed to increase the education levels of service personnel.

“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,” she said in a 1969 interview with Ebony Magazine. “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 is seen at a ceremony in which she was promoted to colonel in 1968. Ruth Lucas was the first African American woman to reach the rank of colonel in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

Many men saw results from her programs and management, including retired Master Sgt. Alfonzo Hall, who served in the same division as Col. Lucas in the 1950s.

“She saw the big picture,” Hall said in an interview. “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.”

Col. Lucas retired from the Air Force in 1970. Her military decorations included the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.

“She looked at all people as people and tried to help them all,” Hall said.

After her military retirement, Col. Lucas became the director of urban services at the old Washington Technical Institute, one of three schools that merged in 1977 to form the University of the District of Columbia. She designed outreach programs to encourage high school students to pursue higher education. In 1994, she retired as the assistant to the dean of UDC’s College of Physical Science, Engineering and Technology.

Ruth Alice Lucas was born in Stamford, Conn., on November 28, 1920. She was a 1942 education graduate of what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama. Shortly after graduation, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

She transferred from the Army to the newly created Air Force in 1947.

In the early 1950s, while stationed at an Air Force base in Tokyo, Col. Lucas taught English to Japanese schoolchildren and college students in her spare time.

She received a master’s degree in educational psychology from Columbia University in 1957 and moved to the Washington area in the early 1960s.

Col. Lucas was a past member of a Washington Urban League advisory panel on education and worked with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to improve testing techniques.

Survivors include two great-nieces whom she helped raise as children, Laurie Ward and Elaine Ward, both of Washington.

“There were times when I thought about getting out, but I decided that I could best utilize my training right here in the service,” Col. Lucas recalled to Ebony Magazine. “One year slipped into another, and, well, when my promotion came last year, it just seemed to cap all my previous experiences.”