Blacks hold special place in Colorado’s history

By Kathrine Warren

How much do you know about Black History Month? Take this short quiz to test your knowledge.

1. What significant event in black history occurred in Colorado in January?

a) Colorado became the first state where black lawmakers lead both legislative chambers.
b) The nation’s largest inauguration bash was held in Aspen.
c) Denverites honored Martin Luther King Jr. with the first Marade (combination parade and march) ever held.
d) The University of Denver drafted two black women to play on the ioneers’ hockey team.

2. Why is Black History Month observed in February?

a) It’s the shortest month of he year.
b) It’s the month Abraham Lincoln was born.
c) It’s the month Frederick Douglass was born.
d) B and C.

3. Who was the first black elected to statewide office in Colorado?

a) Wellington Webb.
b) Barney Ford.
c) George L. Brown.
d) Vikki Buckley.

Country Music Hall of Famer Rudy Grant leads the audience in a sing along of John Denver’s “Country Road.”
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Ordinarily, we’d make you wait until the end of the article to discover whether your answers to our quiz are correct. But since we’re smack-dab in the middle of Black History Month, without further ado, here they are:

1. The answer is (a). Last month, Rep. Terrence Carroll became the state’s first black speaker of the House, joining Senate President Peter Groff to lead Colorado’s General Assembly.

2. The answer is (d). In the early 1900s, Carter G. Woodson, the “father of black history” chose February because Lincoln was born on Feb. 12 and Frederick Douglass is believed to have been born at the beginning of February. However, when Douglass was born, slave owners didn’t keep track of births among slaves. Douglass adopted Feb. 14 as his birthday because he first became involved with the abolitionist movement on that date.

3. The answer is (c). George L. Brown was elected lieutenant governor of Colorado in 1974. During his fifth term in the Colorado Senate, Brown, a former reporter for The Denver Post, ran on the Democratic ticket with Gov. Richard Lamm. He became the first black person since Reconstruction to serve as a lieutenant governor in the United States — but just barely. Brown took the oath of office one hour before the lieutenant governor’s oath was administered to California’s Mervyn Dymally, who also took office in January 1975.

The other possible answers to question three — Wellington Webb, Barney Ford and Vikki Buckley — also played significant roles in Colorado history.

Webb, Denver’s first — and, so far, only — black mayor served 12 years, from 1991 to 2003.

In a Feb. 3 address at Regis University, Webb emphasized the importance of understanding black history. The talk, entitled “Bridging the Gap,” kicked off a series sponsored by the university’s Institute on the Common Good (ICG) and The Conflict Center (TCC).

“One cannot escape our history,” he said. “If you understand that history, it makes it easier to converse with others and makes it easier for us to move forward in relationships.”

Executive Director of the Black American West Museum La Wanna Larson greets visitors to the Governor’s Mansion for this part of the “Second Monday Historical Series.”
Photo by John Schoenwalter
The Colorado Statesman

Colorado First Lady Jeannie Ritter celebrated Black History Month at the Governor’s Mansion on Feb. 9, with La Wanna Larson, the director of Denver’s Black American West Museum, and others as part of the “Second Monday Historical and Cultural Series.”

Larson is currently engaged an effort to salvage the tumbledown structures that remain at the Weld County site of Dearfield, where seven black homesteaders first claimed land in 1910. At its peak in the 1920s, the black settlement — which Larson hopes to restore in time for its centennial — had a population of 700, a church, a schoolhouse, a filling station and a dance pavilion.

Dearfield is only one chapter in Colorado’s black history, which is especially impressive considering that blacks compose only 4 percent of the state’s population.

Blacks were prominent in Colorado’s political history even before statehood.

In the 1860s, a group of black settlers in Colorado were instrumental in getting voting rights for blacks in the West.

According to Colorado State Historian William Convery, Colorado lost its first bid for statehood in 1864 because prominent black settlers and businessmen, including Barney Ford, Henry O. Wagoner and William J. Harding, lobbied Congress to reject the bid because the state’s first Constitution granted suffrage only to white males.

Convery noted that, without that effort by Ford, Wagoner and Harding, Colorado would have become a state 12 years earlier, and would have missed its “Centennial State” status.

The three black Coloradans who lobbied Congress were empowered by their connections with abolitionist leaders, which gave them a strong influence among the politicians of the time. Their work also led to passage of the Territorial Suffrage Act of 1867, which enfranchised all black males living in western territories of the United States.

A stained-glass portrait of Ford overlooks Colorado’s House of Representatives Hall in honor of his work.

However, says Convery, among the three, Ford was the least involved in politics.

“He has been portrayed as really the only voice,” Convery said. “His involvement has taken on legendary proportions.”

What is not legend though, is that Ford, a runaway-slave-turned-businessman, was the first black to serve on a grand jury in Colorado.

Wagoner became Arapahoe County’s first — and, so far, only — black sheriff.

Other important black figures in Colorado’s political history include Joseph H. Stuart, the state’s first black legislator, and former state senators Regis Groff and Gloria Tanner, the first black woman to serve in the Colorado Senate.

Vikki Buckley, who served as Colorado’s secretary of state from 1995 until her death in office 1999, at one time held the highest state office of any Republican woman in the United States.

And of course, current General Assembly leaders Groff and Carroll belong on the list of influential black Colorado political figures.

Webb believes Colorado has offered blacks more opportunities because it’s more inclusive than other states, and he attributes that quality to its pioneer history.

“(On the frontier) you choose people who can produce,” he said. “They don’t care if the person leading the wagon is black. Colorado adheres to a frontier ethic.

“In the South and on the East Coast, it’s as much about social pedigree as it is merit, but, in the West, we haven’t had to deal with that.”

Former state Sen. Gloria Tanner, who served in the ’90s, notes that Colorado has produced a high number of black leaders given its small black population.

“It’s just really been wonderful that (voters) are electing people by their talent and what they bring to the table,” she said.

Tanner says her work throughout the nation has made her realize that, in most states, most black legislators are elected from predominantly black districts.

But that’s not the case here, Tanner notes, because Colorado is “more open-minded and independent.”

The election of President Barack Obama has made Tanner more optimistic about national opportunities for blacks.

“The tone is so different. You can feel it in the air that things are changing.” Tanner said.

She says never thought she’d live to see a black president.

“It’s a time of history, and I’m glad that I’m living (to see it),” she said.