It was a long time ago. It was a short time ago.
In November 1900—exactly 118 years ago on November 16—Denver police put 16-year-old Preston “John” Porter Jr. on a train to Limon, Colorado to be killed by a lynch mob. The teen, who was black and a migrant rail worker with scant or no community connections in Colorado, had been accused of the rape and murder of 12-year-old Louise Frost, a white girl from an agrarian community outside of Limon. His presumed guilt was disseminated across the state in a flurry of local newspaper coverage. Denver police apprehended Porter when he, his father, and brother attempted to collect payment for their labor in Denver soon after Frost was found dead. Police held Porter at the Denver city jail, then near 14th and Larimer, for about five days. There was no formal investigation or trial. Instead, Denver Police tortured Porter and threatened his family. He confessed to the crime. Back in Limon, the black teenager was burned at the stake before a crowd of onlookers. Frost’s father lit the first match.
More than a century later, Denver activists are working to ensure this dark chapter in Colorado’s history is not forgotten. Elisabeth Epps, co-lead of the Denver Justice Project and director of the Colorado Freedom Fund, says the state isn’t just doomed to repeat its history if it doesn’t reckon with it, but she believes a form of lynching persists nationally today in fatal shootings of people of color by police and within a criminal justice system in which accused people of color fare worse than accused white people.
“What happened to Preston Porter Jr. is, sadly, very easy to draw parallels to something that happened just yesterday in America—we don’t have to talk about it in the abstract,” Epps says. “The literal way in which people of color, particularly young men of color, are summarily executed—in their homes if you’re Botham Jean, or in their cars if you’re Jordan Davis, or walking home if you’re Trayvon Martin—that’s not in any way functionally different [from the lynching of Preston Porter].”
Epps spoke before the Denver City Council on November 5, after Councilmember Albus Brooks (District 9) read a grim proclamation commemorating Porter’s murder and the complicity of Colorado public officials in his death. On Saturday, November 17, activists will gather in Limon to commemorate Porter in a memorial hosted in partnership with the Montgomery, Alabama-based advocacy organization Equal Justice Initiative.
Epps says it’s symbolic that she, a black woman, was able to speak at last week’s proclamation reading alongside Pennie Goodman, an activist within the Colorado Episcopal Church, in a chamber where, she says, she and Goodman wouldn’t have been welcome in the time period Porter was killed.
“Not tokenism,” Epps says, “But the symbolism, of having two black women, two literate, educated, free, able-to-own-property black women reading anything to City Council is symbolic in a powerful way. I think that the content of the proclamation is particularly powerful because it is this record that we leave for those who follow.”
Porter is one of five black people thought to have been lynched in Colorado around the turn of the twentieth century, according to Metropolitan State University history professor Stephen Leonard, who authored Lynching in Colorado, 1859-1919.
“I’m a long-time resident of the Denver-metro area and in spite of learning a lot and studying a lot about lynching in the south, I am woefully ignorant of the lynchings that took place in my beloved state,” Goodman said before City Council Nov. 5. “Maybe by beginning with the support of our local officials, we can begin the long journey through our awareness. Then, maybe some day, these horrible practices will become a thing of a past.”