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Professor of African-American Studies
Rachel B. Noel is a legend in Colorado. She was the first African-American woman to be elected to public office in the state and the first African-American to serve on Denver’s Board of Education and as a member and chair of the University of Colorado Board of Regents. She introduced the “Noel Resolution” in 1968, which aimed to provide equal opportunity to Denver’s school children and led to a historic legal victory: the U.S. Supreme Court’s first de facto desegregation decision involving a Northern school district. She was named by the Rocky Mountain News as one of Colorado’s Top 100 Citizens of the Century in 2000, one of countless awards she won in her lifetime. And yet for those who knew her, for those whose lives she touched, Noel was simply a humble and gracious woman whose guiding principle was to live what she believed.
“You don’t see that kind of authenticity in many people,” said her daughter, Angela Noel.
“She was always the same person, from the time she grew up in a small town in Virginia, to her first job in a settlement house, to moving to Denver and getting involved in the PTA and Girl Scouts and in courageous activism, to teaching and eventually as a high-profile public figure.“
“The same things were always important to her,” her son, Buddy, added. “She loved children, education, God and her faith.”
Noel also was a faculty member at MSU Denver from 1969-80. She built the African-American Studies Department and chaired it from 1971-80. She was known as a gifted scholar and perceptive colleague who often challenged the University community to practice what it preached. In 1974-75, Noel was recognized as ASMSC Outstanding Female Faculty Member. In her later years, she would receive honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Colorado, the University of Denver and MSU Denver.
A sociologist by training and a teacher at heart, Noel had a reputation for going above and beyond on behalf of her students. Her son noted that, “She enjoyed seeing her students progress as individuals and in their understanding of social justice issues as they played out in Denver, in particular the longtime struggle for justice in the African-American community.”
Shortly after Noel’s retirement, MSU Denver launched the Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Visiting Professorship. The professorship was created to celebrate and foster the courageous commitment to multiculturalism, diversity and education that defined Noel’s years at the institution. For more than three decades, the professorship has brought renowned scholars, musicians, corporate leaders, writers, political trailblazers, actors and other luminaries to campus to conduct seminars, performances and lectures for the community.
Noel passed away in 2008 at the age of 90, but never lost her passion for education and activism. Both her children believe that if she were alive today, she would be involved in movements that advocate for fairness and inclusion. They are certain she would be concerned about the continuing racial disparities in Denver Public Schools as well as racial injustices across the nation, and would encourage her students to be a part of the dialogue and the solution. After all, Noel believed you could always do more, grow more and learn more.
“She always wanted to push forward,” her daughter observed. “If she were at MSU Denver today, she’d be asking ‘what still needs to be done? Yes, we have accomplished some great things in the past, but how do we protect the advancements we’ve made and continue to push for more?’”
As MSU Denver celebrates its 50th anniversary year, what better time to ask those tough questions, to ensure that the University is true to its mission, for us all to live as Rachel B. Noel did — with authenticity.