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Remembering the first Black woman to graduate college in Utah

Posted at 10:51 PM, Feb 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 09:49:41-05

SALT LAKE CITY — She was the first Black woman to graduate with a college degree in the state of Utah, and that was just the beginning of the legacy Mignon Barker Richmond left.

Richmond's great-niece still lives in the state and has recently collected pictures, creating a poster with information about the woman she called "Auntie Mignon."

"She’s been taking care of my grandma, my dad, me, but also the community," said Michelle Smith, Richmond's great-niece.

Smith doesn't remember much about her great-aunt, except for attending a Young Women's Christian Association event with her.

"I just had a great time. I was probably age four," said Smith. "I remember getting my picture taken of Big Bird from Sesame Street."

Though Big Bird is cool, he's got nothing on Smith's Auntie.

Jackie Thompson helped write the biography of Richmond for Better Days 2020, an organization dedicated to researching Utah women's history.

"Her legacy speaks for herself," said Thompson. "Her name means 'little flower of Africa.'"

Thompson said Richmond's father escaped from slavery in the South and moved to Utah where he met and married Richmond's mother. They had three kids.

"I can just hear her mother saying, 'Mignon, you can do anything,' and that with Christ all things are possible," said Thompson.

After attending West High School in Salt Lake City, Richmond moved to what was then known as the Utah State Agriculture College, now Utah State University.

It was there Richmond faced some of her greatest challenges.

Thompson said one of Richmond's professors said to her: "You won't pass because you're a Negro."

"She says, 'I refuse to let that get in my way,'" said Thompson.

Instead of failing, in 1921, Richmond became the first Black woman to graduate with a college degree in Utah.

It was not the last time Richmond would face racist remarks, but nothing seemed to hold her back from serving her community.

In World War II, Richmond volunteered at the Red Cross, YWCA and LDS Hospital. She was also hired to be the senior director over youth volunteers.

In 1948, Richmond started the first school lunch program in Utah and later co-founded a recreational place for minority youth in Salt Lake.

Nearly 100 years after her graduation, a community garden was dedicated in Salt Lake City — serving 25 households in Richmond's name.

"She paved the way for all of us," said Smith.