Visiting Professorship Continues to Honor Civil Rights Champion Rachel B. Noel
Visionary Filmmaker & Educator Shakti Butler to be Introduced on March 7 & 8
The annual Metropolitan State University of Denver Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Visiting Professorship will be held March 7 and 8 at various locations on the university’s campus and at Shorter AME Church. The theme is “Breaking Free: Cultivating Conditions for Liberation.”
This year’s visiting honoree is Shakti Butler, Ph.D., who is a visionary filmmaker, transformative learning educator, and founder and president emeritus of World Trust Educational Services, Inc. The nonprofit utilizes Butler’s films as the core of its teaching tools.
Her films, curricula, workshops and programs are catalysts for institutional, structural and cultural change. Butler, who is an African American woman of West Indian and Russian-Jewish heritage, has produced five documentaries: The Way Home, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, Light in the Shadows, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, and Healing Justice: Cultivating a World of Belonging. Her work moves conversations beyond Black and white and speaks to the interconnectedness of racism, classism, sexism and homophobia.
“These aren’t films meant to sit on the shelf. They are meant to have social impact,” said Angie Noel, daughter of Rachel B. Noel, who made her mark on various educational institutions in Colorado, becoming one of the most respected leaders in the state’s history.
A champion of the civil rights movement in Denver and in Colorado, Noel was the first African American woman elected to public office in Colorado, the first African American elected to the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education, the first African American to be a member and chair of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, and the first African American woman elected statewide in Colorado.
Of note, Wanda James became the second African American woman elected to the CU Board or Regents last autumn, 44 years since Noel’s election to the board.
Talking About Mom
Leading up to this premier series of events surrounding the professorship, Noel’s son and daughter shared unique memories of their mom as she went about making her mark in the world. Angie has memories as a young child walking with her mom in the neighborhood, being at ground zero with her as she started doing work close to home with organizations from the parent teacher associations to the March of Dimes. She was “strong and straight forward” and would get started on her doorstep.
Today, African American women are making their marks at the highest levels in the nation from first lady, vice president, U.S. supreme court justice and more. When looking back at the obstacles Noel pushed through getting the Noel Resolution passed, she was ahead of her time as a powerful African American woman with no apologies.
Her son Edmond F. “Buddy” Noel, Jr. recalls coming home from law school and attending board meetings with her. “That struck me as a young man watching mom at meetings with white men sitting on either side of her smoking cigars,” he said. “They miscalculated badly. They made mom look more dignified.” He stressed that she was a force to contend with and she had no need to raise her voice. “She raised a point,” said Buddy, the founder of The Noel Law Office, LLC who has practiced law for more than 35 years handling matters in commercial litigation and employment law.
As guardian of Noel’s legacy, MSU Denver has painstakingly documented her impact in Colorado on their website. The university has capsulized her impact through the sponsorship of the film, Great Colorado Women: Rachel Bassette Noel, and through the creation of the film, Rachel B. Noel: The Middle Years.
Excerpts from the university website state: On April 25, 1968, she presented the DPS board with the Noel Resolution, recognizing that the “establishment of an integrated school population is desirable to achieve equality of educational opportunity.” It directed the superintendent to develop “a comprehensive plan for the integration of the Denver Public Schools.”
Under a cloud of threats to Noel and her family, the resolution passed on May 17, 1968. The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually affirm Noel’s position in its landmark decision of 1973, Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1, making Denver the first city outside the American South to be instructed by the country’s highest court to address de facto segregation with school busing.
Noel also played a critical role in MSU Denver’s history. She came to the university as a teacher of sociology and African American Studies in 1969, and served as chair of the African American Studies Department from 1971 to 1980. In 1981, the university created the Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Visiting Professorship to honor her. 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.
A recipient of many awards and distinctions, Noel also lived to see a DPS middle school named in her honor. Although that middle school was closed, the building and campus is still called the Rachel B. Noel campus and is home to various charter programs. The Noel Community Arts School, housed in the former Montbello High School building, consists of both a high school and a middle school.
Noel was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Denver in 1993 and the University of Colorado in 2004, and an honorary degree from MSU Denver in 1981. The 1996 Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame honoree held a bachelor’s degree from Hampton University and a master’s degree from Fisk University.
Visiting Professors — A Common Thread
Visiting professors over the life of the program have crossed many disciplines from the likes of actor Ossie Davis and musician Dianne Reeves to professor and philosopher Cornel West and political commentator and journalist Joy-Ann Reid. There is a commonality in all of the visiting professors that strikes a chord for Angie and Buddy and speaks to the legacy of their mom.
According to Angie, the selected individuals share their personal and professional commitments to achieve excellence, to follow their dreams and to always bring someone with them. Buddy says that there’s always been an educator thread throughout the group as the professorship provides them an opportunity to exercise their “educator chops.”
The dynamics of the professorship programming that connects renowned experts to the community is “exactly what my mom had in mind,” said Angie, explaining that a professor can learn from a student in a conversation just as the student learns from the professor. It’s a “give and take” for students to have discussions in small settings with different personalities and celebrities.
As a representative of the family, Buddy makes a point to attend all of the events associated with the professorship, from the coffee discussions and lectures to the finale event at his mom’s church, Shorter AME.
The Greatest Generation
Noel, who died at the age of 90 in 2008, received numerous awards and recognitions during her lifetime and beyond, but it wasn’t about the applause; it was about doing what needed to be done, according to Buddy.
When reflecting on his mom’s choice to get involved, he points out that she hails from what is known as the “Greatest Generation.” The term was popularized by the title of a 1998 book by American journalist Tom Brokaw. The book profiled American members of this generation who came of age during the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II, as well as those who contributed to the war effort on the home front.
“They were just doing it,” said Buddy, who adds that his father Edmond Noel was the first African American physician to receive hospital privileges in the 1950s when he began practicing at General Rose Memorial Hospital (now HealthOne Rose Medical Center.)
Angie shared that while her mom’s sister Ida B. Haddon was not directly mentioned in the movie, Hidden Figures, she was one of the supervisors of the African American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race.
Strong women are in her DNA according to Angie, who also pointed out that while her mom was in college she was mentored by Charles S. Johnson, an American sociologist and the first African American president of Fisk University. “She was ready from day one.”
When talking about how his mom connected with people, Buddy lauded her strength in team building, saying that she was a “politician in an old-school way.” Angie added that her mom was “sincere, compassionate. It was clear. She wasn’t faking.”
In one of the documentaries on Noel, former Colorado State Senator Pat Pascoe said, “She was a beautiful person in every way. She was one of the most persuasive public servants I’ve ever known.”
Pascoe, also an author, offers a first-hand account of the decades-long fight to desegregate Denver Public Schools in her 2022 book, “A Dream of Justice.”
Buddy said before running for the school board, she was part of a study group, initiated by parents opposing a new school around the 29th and 32nd blocks near Colorado Boulevard. She took advantage of the opportunity to use her research skills. Angie says the study group took her mom all over town so she could see the differences between schools. Buddy added that his mom and dad could easily see the vast differences. It fueled her run for DPS school board.
Buddy also mentioned his mom’s conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. during one of his visits to Denver. King said to her that if you are in a place to make a big difference, and make things move – do it.
Editor’s note: For more information about the professorship, visit www.msudenver.edu/noel-professorship/