Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Lady First

It wasn’t very big, but it was a start. On June 11, 1873, the first graduating class of the University of Kansas – all four members of it – stepped onto the platform inside the newly constructed University Hall to receive their diplomas and become the institution’s very first graduates.

It was a proud moment for students, faculty, and citizens alike, for KU was no longer a university in name only. Essentially a preparatory school since its founding in 1866, it had taken seven years to produce a crop of students who met the faculty’s requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Now, in the words of the Heirophantes yearbook, “the University of Kansas…[was] at last full-fledged, and occupying the same plane as other collegiate institutions in our country.”

But unlike many of those institutions, KU was more than a college for men alone. It was coeducational from the start, and on the platform that day, next to “three sons” of the University, stood “one fair daughter,” Flora Richardson, who has the double distinction of being both a member of KU’s first graduating class and its first female graduate.

Flora Ellen Richardson was a relative latecomer to the University. Born in Monroe, Wisconsin, on February 17, 1851, Richardson came to Kansas nineteen years later when her parents, Asa and Phoebe, relocated to the state. She was already a college student, as well; prior to her arrival in Lawrence she had taken classes at the University of Wisconsin and had later enrolled at Lombard University in Galesburg, Illinois.

In October 1870 the Richardson family settled in Lawrence, and Flora took her first classes at KU the following spring, alongside her brother George. She went back to Lombard in the fall, but something about her KU experience convinced her that her educational future lay not in Illinois but in Kansas. In February 1872 she returned to Lawrence and enrolled in the University as a full-time student, joining her brother Albert (who, like George, did not graduate).

She was not the first female student at KU, to be sure. There had been a number of young women before her, including several in the very first batch of students in 1866. But marriage, childraising, and other commitments had claimed them long before they met the University’s graduate requirements, and one by one they had dropped out. It fell to Richardson, then, to be the first woman to make it all the way through.

Richardson’s previous university work must have served her well, for she matriculated as a junior and immersed herself in KU’s social and educational scene with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. She joined the Oread Literary Society, for example, and was a founding member of the Kappa chapter of the “I.C. Sorosis” sorority, which in 1888 changed its name to Pi Beta Phi. She even created KU’s first student entomological collection, a 140-specimen group including everything from cockroaches to walking sticks, as a pupil of Professor (and later KU Chancellor) Francis Huntington Snow.

Her classroom experience as a “Classical Collegiate” major was a bit more routine, with classes typical of American university curricula of the time: Greek and Latin, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, physics, US Constitutional history, moral philosophy and natural theology, among others. In less than two years Richardson had mastered them and was ready to graduate as class valedictorian alongside fellow students Ralph Collins, Murray Harris, and Lindorf Tosh.

Graduation exercises for the class of 1873 commenced at the beginning of the second week of June. Festivities opened with a Baccalaureate service on June 8, as KU Chancellor John Fraser praised the faculty for “the ripened fruits of their educational labors” and Reverend Richard Cordley gave the graduating seniors a sermon on the dangers of materialism, modernism, and the current “fast age.”

But the real heart of graduation week lay in “Class Day,” which fell on June 10. It was here that the four seniors became the center of attention. In order to give the community a glimpse of its students’ erudition, the faculty required the four to deliver “orations” on a variety of topics. That morning, to the sounds of Strauss and Freizing performed by a US Army band, a crowd of over a thousand descended on the new University Hall (now remembered as Old Fraser Hall), to hear the graduates speak.

Richardson, the first to deliver her oration, spoke at length on the “Uses of Superstition.” In flowery Victorian-era style, peppering her delivery with classical and historical references, Richardson argued that superstition, though allegedly “hurtful to man’s progress,” actually furthered intellectual inquiry by inspiring reverent curiosity about the world. The speech was a success; the Daily Kansas Tribune lauded Richardson for her performance. “The young lady came forward,” it noted with admiration, “tastefully and elegantly attired in white, and delivered her oration in a firm, though pleasant voice. Perfect quiet reigned throughout, and the speaker’s clear utterance was heard in every part of the hall.”

Later, after assisting fellow graduates in planting a commemorative vine alongside the building and presenting a gift of artwork to the University, Richardson returned to the stage to deliver a more lighthearted valedictory address to the junior class. “To you,” she declared with a smile, “we leave the laborious task of filling our places…. We exhort you to imitate our virtues, and let it ever be your aim to impress the preparatory students with your vast superiority.”

At Commencement the next day, after comments by the Chancellor and a rousing speech by Kansas Senator John Ingalls, Richardson and her three fellow graduates grasped their sheepskins and strode out of college life (though not before eating their fill at a sumptuous banquet in their honor). The day before, Ralph Collins had speculated in a speech whether the class of ’73 would go on to professional glory in the days to come.

For Flora Richardson, however, Victorian gender roles ensured that her professional future would lack the opportunities open to her male counterparts. Shortly after graduation she took a position in one of the few professions of the time that employed women: teaching at a secondary school. Remaining in Lawrence, Richardson began teaching in the fall of 1874 at a school in the nearby community of Kanwaka, later picking up more work at another school on New York Street in Lawrence itself. On Christmas Day, 1875, she married local man Osgood A. Colman and settled in Kanwaka, where the couple remained until 1913, when they moved to Lawrence. Between 1875 and 1887 she would bear seven children, four girls and three boys.

But Richardson’s intellectual life didn’t end with her baccalaureate. She would earn her Master of Arts degree from KU in 1875, and engaged in a small amount of post-graduate study afterwards. She enrolled in the famous Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, one of the nation’s first book clubs, and earned another diploma after four years of home study. Apparently, Richardson also engaged in a bit of social activism. In her obituary, daughter Nellie Colman Bigsby praised her reformist spirit, claiming, “There has been no movement for the benefit of her community or for women and children that did not receive her ardent support. Women’s suffrage, the women’s rest room, the various plans to provide high school privileges for rural pupils and the farm bureau for rural women, each in their turn were things she was untiring in her efforts to secure.”

Flora Richardson died on November 19, 1924, passing away in her home on Mississippi Street in Lawrence from “valvular heart disease,” in the words of her death certificate. After her funeral at the Unitarian Church, of which she was a lifetime member, she was buried in Lawrence’s Oak Hill cemetery. But her legacy would continue at KU. In 1934, for example, the entomological collection she had developed as an undergraduate was found in a Lawrence attic, refurbished, and placed on display in Snow Hall, an event that earned front-page coverage in the University Daily Kansan.

Of more long-term significance, perhaps, were her descendants’ continued connections with KU. Daughter Nellie Colman Bigsby would graduate in 1900, and granddaughter Flora Bigsby Dickey received her sheepskin in 1928. Great-grandson Wendell Dickey graduated in 1956, and great-great grandson Robert Dickey entered KU as a freshman in 1976, thus becoming the University’s first fifth-generation student and pushing Flora Richardson Colman’s connection with KU into its second century.

Brian Drake

Department of History
University of Kansas

[Source Notes: Much of Flora Richardson’s personal information is located in the Flora Richardson Colman folder at the Watkins Community Museum, Lawrence, Kansas, and this article draws liberally from it. In particular see “Funk Mortuary Book (Sept. 25, 1922-Sept. 3, 1927),” p. 252. For coverage of the 1873 graduation exercises, including the text of Richardson’s speeches, see the Daily Kansas Tribune, June 10-13 and 15, 1873. See also the Hierophantes 1873-4, pp. 4-5, 17, and 27-8. For student records of Richardson and siblings see Record Group 14/0, Box 60, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. For Richardson’s entomology collection see the University Daily Kansan, April 4, 1934.]