Gloria Tanner sitting on the couch in the living room

Master’s degree in hand, women’s rights champion launched a legacy of change

May 2, 2019

Gloria Tanner (MA ’76) grew up in the same segregated neighborhood in Atlanta as civil rights great Martin Luther King, Jr. She went to high school with MLK’s younger siblings and lived next door to Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of a major southern city.

The childhood climate seeded Tanner’s life of public service – also fed by her parents’ civic passion. But her higher education, which culminated in a master’s degree at CU Denver, made that career flourish, she said.

“I’ll tell you: I never enjoyed school as much as I did grad school,” said Tanner, 83, Colorado’s first black woman senator. “I was in the field that I wanted to be in, and regardless of whether I was an elected official or not, I always wanted to have some input into public policy,” she said. “That degree gave me the opportunity to do it. It was very important to me.”

“I always wanted to have some input into public policy. That degree gave me the opportunity to do it.”

Gloria Tanner (MA ’76)

Gloria holding a photo of her and her five sisters.
Gloria Tanner holds a photo of her and her five sisters. Tanner, the first black woman Colorado senator, credits her mother’s influence for raising daughters who all succeeded in traditionally male-centric professions. 

The making of a civil rights champion

Raised by a strong and community-minded mother, the activist in Tanner was ignited young. “I learned all of those things at an early age,” said Tanner, who left a legacy of change behind during her six-plus decades in Denver.

“My parents were always involved, especially my mother, Tanner said. “She got people out to vote.”

Tanner recalled marching as a child with her mother, five sisters and brother to get lights on the street corners so the neighborhood kids would be safe. “We’d all march on city hall,” said Tanner, who also went to high school with civil rights leader and President Bill Clinton’s close advisor Vernon Jordan.

Gloria is highlighted in the photo with a red circle around her. Gloria marches in Denver's MLK parade.
Gloria Tanner marches in Denver’s Martin Luther King, Jr., parade along with other public service leaders and friends, including former Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife, Wilma Webb.
(Photo credit: Denver Public Library; Rocky Mountain News Photographic Archives; photographer George Kochaniec, Jr.)

Fighting for change in the mile-high west

When Tanner married, her Air Force husband was soon stationed in the Mile High City, and the couple moved to Colorado in 1956. “When I came to Denver, it was sort of a culture shock,” Tanner said. “There weren’t as many civil-rights things going on here at that time as there were down south.”

But that would soon change.

Choosing an urban university to fulfill a dream

In Denver, Tanner turned her focus on her long-time goals: gaining a master’s degree and influencing public policy.

While raising three children, she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and then set her sights on CU Denver, even passing up a scholarship at another university.

“I thought I needed to be in an urban area,” said Tanner, who also chose CU Denver for its urban affairs program in the School of Public Affairs.

Her time at the university stood out for providing her with a diversity of opinions and opening her mind to other views, Tanner said.

“CU Denver is tapped into the city,” she said. “It knows what the community needs and what the employers want.” Because of that, its students get jobs, she said.

“CU Denver is tapped into the city. It knows what the community needs and what the employers want.”

Gloria Tanner (MA ’76)

Joining public office and the Hall of Fame

After earning her master’s degree, Tanner served as executive assistant to Colorado Lt. Gov. George Brown for two years, before becoming executive director of communications for Colorado Sen. Regis Groff (the second black person elected to the State Senate).

Soon, Tanner’s colleagues were taking note of her talents and passion. In 1985, she was elected to the Colorado State House, where she became the second black representative to hold a leadership position: Minority Caucus leader.

“I had never planned to do that, but people kept encouraging me,” Tanner said of running for office, acknowledging supporters such as early childhood education visionary Anna Jo Haynes and civil rights leader Rachel Noel. Noel was the first black person to join and to chair the CU Board of Regents.

All three women were eventually inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

Making Colorado Senate history

In 1994, when Sen. Groff retired, Tanner was appointed as his replacement, becoming the first black woman senator in Colorado history.

“Every day that I walked into that Senate, I walked in on the shoulders of a Rachel Noel and a Harriet Tubman (famed abolitionist) and all of the women who had come before me,” Tanner said.

While Tanner said it was sad that it took 100-plus years for a black woman to work on the Senate floor: “At least the doors were finally opened.”

Gloria looks at a book collection of Obama speeches while sitting down.
Gloria Tanner looks at a collection of former President Barrack Obama’s speeches. The book was a gift from Allegra “Happy” Haynes (MPA ’02), a noted Denver politician and longtime family friend.

Focusing on women and children

Tanner, who worked as a reporter for the Denver Weekly News while running a family and going to school, focused much of her legislative work on women and children.

“We’ve had so many challenges as women  ̶  as mothers, as employees,” said Tanner, an influential advocate for women in public positions. “We know what we need, and we know how to get things done.”

One bill Tanner carried that she said she is most proud of resulted in the Safe Haven law in Colorado, directed at women in crisis. Passed in 2000, the law allows mothers of newborns under 72 hours old to drop the babies off at a hospital or fire station with no repercussions. More than 50 babies have been relinquished under the law.

A lifetime of opening doors

When Tanner retired from legislative work in 2000, more than 500 people from across the country joined a “One Glorious Occasion” celebration.

“She is one of the most easygoing spirits,” then-Mayor Wellington Webb’s wife, Wilma Webb, was quoted as saying in a column in The Denver Post. “But make no mistake: Her record speaks loudly.”

Tanner also played a key role in enhancing black women’s success in the community, founding the Colorado Black Women for Political Action group and the Senator Gloria Tanner Leadership and Training Institute for Future Black Women Leaders of Colorado.

“I have been able to open a lot of doors,” Tanner said. “I’m prouder of that than anything.”