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  • Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High by Polly E. Bugros McLean
  • Autumn Womack
Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High. By Polly E. Bugros McLean. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2018. xiii + 309 pp. $29.95 cloth/$23.95 e-book.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, James and Sarah Buchanan completed construction on their family home. In 1882 the young couple had arrived in Colorado from Virginia, where both had been enslaved. Although Colorado attracted far fewer Black migrants than New York, Chicago, or Washington, DC, the state’s liberal constitution, reputation for interracial harmony, and burgeoning economic opportunities that had sprung up around mining attracted a small number of African American migrants. By May 1882, Sarah Buchanan took advantage of a progressive Colorado law that allowed women to purchase property and signed a deed for five lots of land on a subdivision in Barnum. Named for its founder, the famed entertainment mogul turned real estate investor P. T. Barnum, and located just five miles outside of Denver, Barnum was officially incorporated in 1887; the Buchanans were its first Black homeowners. By the turn of the century, and now a family of eight, the Buchanans transformed their humble two-story barn into a five-bedroom brick house. Designed in the popular Queen Anne style and adorned with luxurious wood details, intricate tiling and wallpaper and an extensive library, the home was an exercise in Victorian sensibility, architectural evidence of the family’s investment in bourgeois values and Black uplift politics. “As members of Denver’s rising Black middle class and possibly reflecting a desire to keep up with their more affluent neighbors, James spared no effort in his quest to replicate dominant features of the Victorian era in the new frontier,” writes Polly E. Burgos [End Page 335] McLean in Remembering Lucile, her 2018 biography of Lucile Buchanan, James and Sarah’s fifth child (96). Even so, she continues, “Within the idyllic setting of a picture-perfect Victorian home and garden, the family was not spared the stark realities of life and death” (97). As McLean details with impressive precision that can only be the result of tireless archival sleuthing, the Buchannan home would endure two suicides before Lucile was “unceremoniously removed [from the residence] under court order” and placed under the care of the State (97).

Moments like this abound in Remembering Lucile, where a seemingly straightforward account of a two emancipated slaves and their familial ascent to Denver’s Black middle class is shot through with personal tragedy and cultural details that shed light on the particularities of post-Emancipation African American life in the West. That comporting with the codes of Victorian decorum was no match for both the spectacular and quotidian expressions of white supremacy’s violence will come as no surprise to students of the nineteenth century. Even as Black intellectuals, cultural producers, and everyday men and women embodied middle-class ideals, they did so with the deep awareness that anti-Blackness would always outstrip their very best efforts. In Remembering Lucile, McLean is less concerned with the outward manifestations of post-Reconstruction racist politics and policies than she is with the psychic life of the Buchanan family—how a formerly enslaved couple and their eight children negotiated race, class, and space in face of Reconstruction’s legislative setbacks and within a space that was patently white and yet hospitable to its African American residents. While racial violence, Jim Crow legislation, and the national debates about the “Negro Problem” quietly structure Remembering Lucile, McLean trains her attention on the particularities of the Buchanans’ story, focusing on the ways that racism’s “stark realities” were a check on their Victorian aspirations. For example, McLean asks, “How did their slave experience help define their attitude and impact their future race relations in the West? Did their presence in Barnum help to close the gaps created by race? Did Sarah’s mixed-race ancestry, during a time when color-consciousness resulted in a strong correlation between light skin and increased opportunity, have a profound...


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pp. 335-338
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