May 16, 2023

The Catholic University of America’s first graduates of the Partnership Program — created in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — were honored along with the co-founders of the program at a very special event on campus where a new documentary about the program was shown.

Along with Black alumni, University President Peter Kilpatrick, Vice President for Advancement Scott Rembold, and many others at the event, attendees heard stories from some of the original participants of the program as well as its co-founders.

Catholic University admitted 30 Black students mainly from the local area through the Partnership Program. To mark its success and the work that has been done, the University also bestowed honorary doctoral degrees to the program's first directors, Leon LeBuffe and Thaddeus Aubry at the University-wide Commencement ceremony on May 13.   

The first graduation class of the Partnership Program gathered with its initial directors, Leon LeBuffe and Thaddeus Aubry, May 13 to celebrate the program's 50th anniversary. (Catholic University/Steve Ruark)

The documentary, No Longer Out of Reach — directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker and journalist Chris Jenkins — also premiered. The documentary features four of the program’s first participants along with Aubry and LeBuffe, both alumni, telling their stories. Additional voices from former students and archival footage complete the narrative about how Black students first faced significant struggles to get an education and how the University has been supporting the program since its founding in 1969.

“I can think of no better way to mark the 50th anniversary of the Partnership Program than to shine a light on its history, celebrate its accomplishments, and award honorary degrees to the program’s first directors, Leon LeBuffe and Thaddeus Aubry,” said Dr. Peter K. Kilpatrick, president of Catholic University. “Both of these extraordinary gentlemen offered their offices, homes, and time to students and were dedicated and welcoming.”

During LeBuffe and Aubry’s tenure, they personally mentored every matriculating program student — from their first days on campus through graduation. Even the few who ultimately did not complete the program benefited from their attention. This impact was felt so strongly and had such a profound impact on program graduates that the group established an endowed scholarship — the Thaddeus F. Aubry Jr. and Leon LeBuffe Scholarship — to honor their legacy and help current and future Black students at Catholic University through financial grants.

No Longer Out of Reach features four of the original 30 Black students admitted in 1969: Elvira Wise Smith, Ronny B. Lancaster, Andrea Cullins, and Kenneth Walker. The partners recount their experiences and journeys as Black students on Catholic University’s campus in the 70s. LeBuffe and Aubry discuss the role they played to bridge the gap and help students acclimate to the almost entirely white, and frequently unwelcoming, environment in which they found themselves.

The Partnership Program has helped scores of Black students from the Washington metropolitan area attend Catholic University. In 1968, the year before the program started, there were seven Black undergraduates on campus. Now total undergraduate and graduate enrollment of Black students accounts for approximately 10% of the total student body.

View this gallery of the Partnership Program celebration.