All Terrance Carroll ever wanted was a chance. After escaping the mean streets of Washington, D.C., and heading west as a young man, he overcame childhood trauma to ascend to the upper echelons of Colorado politics. Now, as the first black speaker of the House, Carroll's goal is to give all Coloradans something he had to fight for—the opportunity to succeed.
Colorado's new speaker knows all about following challenging paths to prosperity. Raised by a single mother in one of the worst neighborhoods in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States—Anacostia, Washington, D.C.—Carroll's only way out was education. In his youth, drug dealers held court on the street corners and gangs roamed the neighborhood. His mother, Corine, was 51 years old and unmarried when Carroll was born. He never knew his father. Like so many kids born in tough areas, he had a better chance of getting shot or going to jail than he did escaping from his surroundings.
Corine couldn't afford daycare, so Carroll would accompany her after school to the swanky D.C. mansions where she worked as a maid and do his homework while she cleaned. The homes were filled with expensive art, and Carroll found himself drawn to the culture, so different than that of the street. "This is how some people live," he thought. "In nice houses on safe blocks with fancy art."
Though Corine was the daughter of a Southern sharecropper and a granddaughter of slaves, who never got past the third grade, she always preached education as the key to success. She demanded good grades from her son while he downplayed his academic success. "The biggest fear," he says of Anacostia, "was someone saying you were 'acting white' because you spoke with good diction or did well in school. I did well in school, but I didn't tell anybody about it." He kept his swagger on the streets, covering up his A grades with success on the school's track team. He was also hiding a much darker secret, one that would alternately haunt him and drive his determination to succeed: When he was seven or eight years old, a female family member started to sexually abuse him, an ordeal that went on for years. It would be decades before Carroll told anyone, even his mother, about what he'd endured.
When Carroll was in eighth grade, he first used the levers of education, ones he'd use time and time again to elevate himself, by earning a scholarship to a military school in Virginia. A few years later, he was awarded a scholarship to study abroad in Italy for his junior year of high school. "Over there," he says, "nobody cared where you came from." After high school Carroll enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a longtime incubator for black leaders, including Dr. King, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, and Congressman Sanford Bishop Jr. At last Carroll was able to be himself—getting good grades and speaking well weren't frowned upon at Morehouse; such achievement was expected and honored. He threw himself into his classes, graduating cum laude with a degree in political science.
The Morehouse experience whetted his appetite for education and adventure, and after graduation Carroll headed west to get his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Colorado. Lily-white Boulder was a culture shock, and after his favorite professor left the school, Carroll dropped out and began working as a police officer on campus.
It was a momentary distraction, however, because Carroll knew he was drifting. He had escaped Anacostia, gone to one of the most prestigious black colleges in the country, and now he was a security guard? When memories of his childhood abuse returned, he started to finally deal with the scars it had left, reading books about abuse and seeking therapy. Finally, at age 28, he called his mother to tell her. Almost immediately, the weight of the abuse disappeared. "It was freeing to get it off my chest," he says. "It allowed me to become the man that I am now."
Reinvigorated, he moved to Denver and enrolled at the Iliff School of Theology. Though he liked reading and studying, he felt he'd been called to practice religion. While in school, he met a woman named Marilyn Koerner, and they married in 1998. He graduated in 1999 and became a Baptist minister, serving at several churches with a particular focus on the younger church members. He began to volunteer at political races, spurred on in part by friends he met at Iliff and by a desire to increase his community involvement.
He soon supplemented his day job with night courses at the University of Denver College of Law. "Terrance was well thought of by the student body," says Tanya Bartholomew, one of his professors. "He was always championing the underdog in class and wanted to make sure everybody made it." While in law school, though, his marriage was falling apart; by 2005, the couple filed for divorce. Carroll, who loves to debate issues and talk policy, refuses to talk about his marriage, offering only, "It's something that didn't work out."
Meanwhile, his professional star was rising. In 2003, Peter Groff, whom Carroll had met through a friend at Iliff, was appointed to take an open Senate seat, leaving Groff's old House seat available. A 40-member panel would select the replacement. Several colleagues encouraged Carroll to run, but he wasn't sure—he was still finishing law school and didn't know if he'd enjoy such a public profile. All was settled when he got a forceful call from Vivian Stovall, a political activist who had seen Carroll speak at an MLK celebration. "I blame Vivian for me being in politics," he says. "When the seat came open, I wasn't going to run. But she yelled at me."