The first African American woman to be promoted to colonel in the Air Force was buried on a sultry Wednesday afternoon in Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded by scores of airmen in dress blues and about a dozen friends and family in somber summer suits and within sight of the soaring Air Force Memorial.
Ruth Alice Lucas, 92, who died March 23, “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,” an Air Force chaplain, Maj. Robin Stephenson-Bratcher, said at the graveside.
Lucas worked the field of research, education and training, with particular interest in literacy.
In the November 1969 issue of Ebony magazine, she noted that among the servicemen then entering the military annually, “about 45,000 of them read below the fifth-grade level, and more than 30 percent of these men are black. 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.”
That issue featured a photo spread of the colonel holding on to her beret as she dashed from a military helicopter at the Pentagon.
Lucas joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942 after graduating from what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama. She broke many barriers as she rose in rank, becoming one of the first African American women to attend what is now called the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk.
Full military honors, which included six horses drawing a caisson, a firing party that saluted her with three rifle volleys, and music from the U.S. Air Force Band, were due to her rank.
The jets and helicopters that passed overhead were incidental but seemed fitting for a woman who was the highest-ranking African American woman in the Air Force at the time of her 1970 retirement.
At Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, Stephenson-Bratcher scattered rose petals in the reflecting pool in Lucas’s honor.
“I told the hundreds of people gathered that . . . her courage and strength were an inspiration to all us women who followed after her,” Stephenson-Bratcher said at the graveside service.
“She changed so many people’s lives with her focus on education and integrity,” Stephenson-Bratcher said. “Today we honor her spirit as we lay her to her final earthly resting place.”