O Pioneers!

By Lawrence Goodman / November/December 2008
November 6th, 2008

In her voice, you can still hear the grit that must have gotten her, all those years ago, through Brown.

"I didn't want to cook, wash, iron, and wait on white folks," Beatrice Coleman '25 says. Her voice rises to an angry pitch as she says this. With each word, she forcefully ticks off a finger—cook, wash, and wait. Why did her parents, the poor, uneducated children of slaves, want her to go to Brown? "They didn't want me to cook, wash, iron, and wait on white folks," she says again. She is a very frail woman, hunched over in the wheelchair someone else must push. But when she says this, her voice rises, and for a moment she sounds like someone much younger.

Mary Beth Meehan
Beatrice Coleman '25 plays the piano at a nursing home in Providence where she lives.

Coleman is 104. She now lives in a nursing home in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence. Testament to her pride in her Brown degree are the two photos above her bed in the room she shares with another elderly woman. One of these is of the insignia of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the African American sorority to which she belonged at Brown, and the other shows her at a Brown function in the 1950s. There are no other pictures, friends, or family. Coleman never married. “I didn’t want no man telling me what to do,” she explains. “It’s bad enough having a governor or president.”

Among Brown alumni, she is in sparse company—according to the University’s records, there are only around ten living alumni 100 or older. Most are women, a statistic that holds true for the larger population as well, thanks to a combination of genes, hormones, and lifestyle. Not surprisingly, the University’s alumni data tend to be spottier the farther back in time they go, but Coleman is very likely Brown’s only living African American centenarian, male or female.  

These women are pioneers. In 1874, when a young woman (her name apparently went unrecorded) became the first female to apply to Brown, the University responded that it was, as President Elisha Benjamin Andrews later reported, “inadvisable at that time to recommend the opening of the College to women students.” The first six female students finally arrived on campus on October 1, 1891, after Andrews arranged courses for them. Their classes were held at a grammar school that had once been associated with Brown. After the boys went home at two o’clock, the women arrived to learn from their professors in a classroom on the second floor. The school had no lights, so the women worked until the daylight was too dim to read by.

Mary Beth Meehan
Ruth Lubrano '23 has remained social and active for most of her life. 

The four women in this story are from the second generation of women to attend Brown. By the time they arrived in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Women’s College in Brown University had been established, and about 300 women, most from the Providence area, were taking classes there. Most men’s classes were still off-limits and one of the most hotly debated topics on campus was the so-called “Pembroke problem”—the men worried that the increasing socialization between the genders might ruin the University’s reputation as a bastion of traditional male values and learning. African American women were not permitted to live on campus, and it was only after a battle with the College’s dean that female African Americans were able to attend the junior prom.

This fall, the BAM caught up with four of these women to hear them describe their time at Brown and how it had influenced their lives after graduation. The conversations were often difficult, halting, and brief. The memories were incomplete. During these interviews, the women sometimes grew quickly exhausted and fell asleep after only fifteen or twenty minutes. Their hearing is not what it used to be. They bore witness to some of the indignities of old age that await many of us: full-time care, the loss of taste and vision, and confinement to a home or apartment. Goldie Michelson ’24 lives in an elegant home in Worcester, Massachusetts. On a hot summer day, I found her sitting in an armchair, her feet propped up on the TV tray off which she’d just eaten her lunch. The shades were drawn to keep the house cool. Michelson used to walk five to six miles a day. Now she can only make it from her bedroom to the other side of the house, and even then she needs to lean on the nurse who’s there around-the-clock.

Ruth Lubrano ’23, who now resides in her own condominium in an assisted living facility in Providence, was an avid reader her whole life. Recently, she lost the ability to read anything more than newspaper headlines. “It’s tragic,” she says.

All the same, these four women remain in remarkably good health, free of any major illnesses, sound in mind, and still more than capable of a good laugh. Their reflections are insightful, occasionally even wise. They have seen enough to distill life’s meaning into its essence. If their life stories seem ordinary to us, the reason is that we see them through our twenty-first-century eyes. What is ordinary to us was often extraordinary in their time. They blazed the trail in going to college, in balancing the demands of work and home, and above all, in insisting that a woman’s purpose can be more complex than finding a mate and bearing children.

In the case of Irene Grace ’30, her legacy would last for generations.  All three of her children and all five of her grandchildren attended Brown. “We really appreciate her beginning this tradition,” says her daughter Mimi Silverman ’66.

We can learn from the centenarians too, much as they have learned from their experiences. Like many of the other women, Grace says that what makes life worthwhile is family. She sat in a chair of the common room at the Weston, Massachusetts, assisted-living center where she lives, her hands folded in her lap and talking about how much she was looking forward to her children celebrating her 100th birthday with her this January. “I have wonderful family,” she beamed. “I have wonderful children.”

Lubrano, who is 107, offered this take: “You’ve got to be aware of all that’s going on in this wonderful world. You’ve got to try and at least listen.”

In the summer of 1919, Lubrano, having just graduated from Cranston (R.I.) High School, was uncertain about her future. She had done well in high school, but she didn’t consider herself particularly smart. She remembers sitting in class beside the man who would one day become her husband and thinking, “No way, I’m too stupid for him.”

One day Lubrano decided it was time to ask her father about what she should do next with her life. “Fathers weren’t friendly with the children like the way they are today,” she recalls. “I loved him, looked up to him, respected him. But you didn’t just go running through the house screaming, ‘Hey, Dad!’”

Summoning all her courage, she asked him if he had any plans for her. “He looked at me with almost shock that I should even ask such a question,” Lubrano says. “‘Well, of course you are going to college.’” He didn’t offer this option to Lubrano’s older sister, who had become a hairdresser, or to her three brothers. To this day, Lubrano says, “I don’t know why it didn’t occur to him that boys should go to college.”

Mary Beth Meehan
Goldie Michelson '24 in her elegant home in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Michelson tells the opposite story. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go to college,” she says. Her father was trained as a doctor, but decided he could make a better living as a wholesale dry goods merchant. Education was a must for all his children, male or female.

Michelson tells the opposite story. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go to college,” she says. Her father was trained as a doctor, but decided he could make a better living as a wholesale dry goods merchant. Education was a must for all his children, male or female.

The Women’s College that Michelson, Lubrano, Grace, and their classmates entered comprised three dorms and Pembroke Hall, which was the hub of all social and educational activities, and which would, in 1928, give the college the name it has retained ever since. This was the Roaring Twenties; even though the genders rarely attended classes together, they increasingly socialized. According to The Search for Equity, a history of women at Brown, the females called their male counterparts “our brothers on the Hill.” Meanwhile, the men nicknamed Women’s College dean Margaret Shove “Peggy Push” because she was so outspoken on behalf of her institution.

The centenarians recall their time at Brown with amazing specificity. “I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but I remember from then,” says Michelson. Michelson can tell you the name of her dorm—Miller Hall.  Overall, she says, “I was very happy being there. I loved every minute.”

Lubrano, for her part, remembers running to make it to the Manning Chapel by eight in the morning in time for services. When a male student asked her to a fraternity dance one day, she balked. “My clique of girlfriends happened to be with me,” she says. “‘You’re foolish. You ought to go,’ they advised. ‘It’s not as if you’re going to marry him.’” As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened. The student, Jack Lubrano ’24, ’25 AM, later became her husband.

Lubrano also recounts her saddest day at Brown, one of the saddest in her life, she says. Her mother had died of breast cancer when Lubrano was only two, but she had left her daughter a gold pin. “I wanted to show it off, so big me, I wore it to college,” she says. She put it in a locker one day, and it was stolen. “I always regretted that,” she says, “Because it was one of the most cherished things my mother had,” she says.

Lubrano evidently kept such sad moments well hidden. As a classmate wrote at the time, “If you have ever seen her when she isn’t happy, keep it to yourself for nobody is going to believe you. Why, she’ll give you a smile on a sunny day, a smile on a rainy day, and when it’s cloudy.”
Coleman says she still remembers Joseph Carter ’23, the black student who quarterbacked the football team and whom she and her fellow black female students would watch during breaks from studying. She can also name several of the black women who were at Brown when she was there—Thelma Garland ’24 from Washington, D.C., Marguerite Lingham ’25 from Providence, Charlotte West ’24 from Baltimore, and Francis Waring, also from Baltimore, who died while at the College.

Surprisingly, none of the women said they’d experienced any discrimination while at Brown. “I didn’t have any trouble with them,” Coleman says about the white students at the time. As far as she was concerned, “They were alright, but they could wait on themselves.”

Some of this equanimity may be the result of a more generalized acceptance of prejudice back then, when people seemed more hesitant to assign blame. Often, what we now call social injustice or bigotry was then regarded as simply the way the world was. But their perceived lack of discrimination may also be a byproduct of the self-confidence and singular focus these women needed to get where they were. “I was too high in the clouds. I wouldn’t have noticed anyway,” says Lubrano. “When you’re happy with your own life, it doesn’t matter what anyone says.”

After graduating, Goldie Michelson returned to Worcester to pursue a degree in sociology at Clark University. She dropped out after her first semester to become involved in a local theater troupe, but after her daughter turned four, she decided to finish her degree. She didn’t have a professional career; as she put it, “I always worked, but I never worked worked.” She was instead constantly volunteering. To follow up on her master’s thesis, which focused on the reasons older Jewish residents in Worcester chose not to become U.S. citizens, she started the first agency in that city dedicated to helping immigrants become Americans. “I can’t tell you how many people we citizenized,” she says. She later helped children at a local African American church with their homework.

Michelson’s husband was a successful contractor, and in her later years she dedicated herself to spreading the money he’d made to various charities. There is a David and Goldie Michelson Drama Fund and a Michelson Theater at Clark University in Worcester and a Michelson Conference Room at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “My father believed the same as I do,” she says. “Like the Bible says, ten percent of what you earn goes to charity.”

After Brown, Coleman wanted to teach, but she couldn’t do so in Providence, her hometown, because whites wouldn’t accept blacks teaching their children. She moved to Philadelphia and Elizabeth, New Jersey, to teach for several years, and when Providence’s policy changed she came back to Rhode Island. She insisted that she be able to teach both black and white children. “They didn’t have any choice,” she says. “It was the law.”

By the 1960s she was teaching classes in the school division of Emma Pendelton Bradley Hospital, a neuropsychiatric hospital for children in East Providence.  A newsletter put out by the hospital in 1961 describes Coleman as “a Negro with attractive coloring and a mobile face that lights up when she talks about the children in her charge.” Coleman is quoted as saying that her devotion to her work stemmed from “my love for children, my tremendous interest in the mind, a chance for practical application of theories learned in college, and the many notes received from former patients.” In 1960, Coleman also became secretary of the New England Regional Conference of the NAACP.

Mary Beth Meehan
Irene Grace '30 says the key to her happiness was her family.

Following her Brown graduation, Lubrano became a social worker at Rhode Island’s state institution for the mentally ill. She later worked at the Rhode Island Maternal Health Center, sometimes counseling women on birth control. “Birth control was hush-hush in those years,” she says. “You didn’t use the word out loud to anybody.” After her first child was born, she arranged what her granddaughter Kathryn Lubrano Robinson ’91 says was an early example of flextime, flexible work hours that allowed her to raise her kids. Lubrano also created a full, rich life with her husband, Jack, who managed a physics lab at Brown. They had scores of friends and held regular parties for members of the Brown community at their home in Providence.

“He was the right man for me,” she says. “He loved people.” At the time of his death six years ago, they had been married seventy-six years.  “I’m ready to see Jack again,” she says.

To talk with these women is to marvel at how much history a life can contain. They have not only lived fully; they’ve lived a long time. How have they managed this? An ongoing study of centenarians conducted at Boston University suggests that such people simply age more slowly than the rest of us. Their bodies deteriorate at a slower pace, delaying the onset of such age-related diseases as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

The subjects in the BU study also tend not to be obese, do not smoke, and have learned to handle stress well. Many have relatives who have also lived very long, suggesting a genetic component. It also helps to be a woman. Of the 84,000 centenarians living in the United States, 85 percent are female.

Of course, Brown’s centenarians have their own explanations. Lubrano believes that not allowing her emotions to build inside her has been important. “I loved to spit things out if something was bothering me,” she says. “I once told my husband, ‘It’s no fun having an argument with you because you don’t argue back.’”  (Her husband died at age 102, so it’s hard to know how unhealthy holding his tongue really was).

Michelson attributes her longevity to the walking she did every day until she reached her mid-nineties. “I believe in watching your diet a little,” she adds. Coleman chalks it up to God. “It’s all in the hands of the man above,” she says. “He does things in His way, not yours, not mine, in His way.”

During my first visit, Coleman was achy and out of sorts. We sat in a busy hallway, and she watched as emergency rescue workers wheeled by a pale-faced man on a gurney. He looked gravely ill, if not dead. “Do I have to go through that? I don’t want to go through that,” she moaned. She abruptly ended the interview. “I hope I’ll be dead soon,” she said.

A few weeks later, though, her mood had lifted. She was busy playing a card game in a sun-filled common room with several other residents. She smiled when she was told she was going to be featured in the BAM. “Lucky to be alive,” she said. “Just lucky to be alive.”

Lawrence Goodman is the BAM's senior writer.

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