It was a time when an amazing land, bounding with sunshine, endless hope and possibility began taking shape; a time when birth no longer shackled a person to a life without choice. And dreams---real dreams---could be chased and, if you were lucky, captured. It was a new country where the sky was the limit. But it was also a country where this unbounded optimism most assuredly had its limits.
For some new arrivals---forced arrivals---those with black skin, there was little sunshine and no big sky dreams. What little light there was came only when the sun disappeared, the workday ended and the stars---one by one---came out. For African Americans---slaves---the only symbol of hope was celestial, the night sky.
But slowly, very slowly, hope---even dreams---emerged for some intrepid souls. The dream was called ‘the West,’ said Terri Gentry, Volunteer Docent at Denver’s Black American West Museum & Heritage Center. The West was much more than geography. Literally and figuratively, it symbolized pure escape and freedom. It meant going to a place both unknown and unchartered; a place where a dream could actually intersect with reality; where a big sky included room for them, too.
The West was a place that called out to James Beckworth, Clara Brown, Barney Ford, Lewis H. and Frederick Douglas, Jr., sons of abolitionist icon Frederick Douglas, Sarah Breedlove, also known as Madame C.J. Walker, America’s first black millionaire and scores of the sons and daughters of America’s original sin, slavery. They were inspired to leave their lives in the South when “opportunities were presented by other folks who said, ‘You might have a chance to do well with your families in the West,’” said Gentry.
Their stories are told in intimate detail at the Museum which, incidentally, was gifted to Denver’s African American community by Justina Ford, Colorado’s first black female doctor.
The stories of these black pioneers are held and shared at 3091 California Street. They are the stories of unbelievable pluck and courage, great timing and good fortune. They are the stories of dreams come true.
Clara Brown was born into slavery and endured the pain, suffering and indignity that came with it. Her husband and four children were vanished by an owner who saw them not as a family but as lifeforms for labor, humans, to be sure, but only slightly above livestock.
Brown, perhaps the first black woman to cross the plains, came to Colorado as a wagon train cook. When the Gold Rush began, she added laundress to her skillset. “It’s been said that she used to hold up the men’s pants and shake gold dust out before washing them,” said Gentry. Brown’s imaginative and entrepreneurial ways earned her the money to buy property and mines in and around Central City. She is immortalized in stained glass at the State Capitol.
The Douglas brothers succeeded as entrepreneurs, operating a funeral home near 27th and Welton, opening the city’s first black school and running a restaurant. They also joined in the fight against statehood, demanding a ‘no vote’ until all men were allowed to vote.
Like many other African Americans who migrated west, Beckworth was also born into slavery. He followed his owner to Missouri where---the motivation remains unclear---he was apprenticed as a blacksmith. “It’s difficult to ascertain the exact nature of the relationship,” between the man who owned him and Beckworth, himself, said Devon Flores, Digital Storytelling Coordinator at Pueblo’s El Pueblo Museum. At around age twenty, said Flores, the apprenticeship ended and “He (Beckworth) fell in with a company of fur trappers,” including Jim Bridger and Hugh Glass, two iconic names in Old West lore.
Beckworth spent the rest of his life as a mountain man, fur trader and explorer, working for a time as an Army scout. His life included a number of years living with the Crow Nation. Beckwourth (note different spelling) Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains bears his name. He is also credited with establishing the first trading post in what would later become Pueblo.
Colorado’s history also includes the story of Dearfield, an all-black community in Weld County. It was settled in 1911 and within a decade had a population of 250-300 residents. It grew to include two churches, a school and a few businesses. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1930’s, a decade that included The Dustbowl, the experiment called Dearfield was over.
The names of African Americans are woven into the Denver and Colorado tapestry. Many are ‘firsts,’ the first black men and women who were once pioneers but are today legends. They are not only the black and white or sepia-toned faces of an earlier time like early 20th century business leader Oglesvie ‘Sonny’ Lawson, Ku Klux Klan fighter, Dr. Joseph Henry Peter Westbrook or cowboy Bill Pickett. In their own way, they are giants.
These firsts also include contemporary figures like choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson, Carlotta Walls Lanier, a member of ‘The Little Rock Nine,’ who as a teenager, stood up to undiluted bigotry in desegregating Little Rock’s Central High School, Wellington Webb, Denver’s first black Mayor, Wilma Webb, politician and driving force behind the Martin Luther King, Jr., parade and countless others.
Each met the challenge that went well beyond that of so many others whose skin color was not black. While they did not mend the faultline of bigotry that is part of America’s landscape, each found a way to successfully navigate around it.