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Buchanan was born in Fuquay, North Carolina, but grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where her father was dean of the School of Agriculture at South Carolina State College, which was then the only state school for African Americans in South Carolina.
In 1962 Buchanan graduated from Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina with a degree in medical technology. She went on to attend Columbia University, where she received a master's degree in parasitology in 1968 and a master's degree in public health in 1969.
Although she was accepted to medical school, Buchanan decided not to go due to her desire to dedicate more time to her art. In 1971 she enrolled in a class taught by Norman Lewis at the Art Students League in New York City. During the 1970s Romare Bearden became her friend and mentor. Buchanan decided to pursue art exclusively in 1977 and moved to Macon, Georgia.
In 1980 Buchanan was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. In 1990 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in sculpture. She was chosen as a Georgia Visual Arts honoree in 1997. In 2002 she received an Anonymous Was a Woman Award. In 2005 she was a distinguished honoree of the College Art Association Committee for Women in the Arts. In 2011 she received a lifetime achievement award in New York City from Women's Caucus for Art.
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