Hearing Terri Gentry talk about local African American history is like listening to a proud parent boast about her children—except that, for Gentry, it’s her ancestors that make her proud.
Gentry, a third-generation Denver native, volunteers as a docent and serves on the Board of Directors of the Black American West Museum (BAWM) in Five Points. This Saturday, the 61-year-old is leading the Beyond Five Points bus tour, a collaboration of BAWM and History Colorado that will start at 9 a.m. and take participants on a tour of northeast Denver, from Five Points through Park Hill toward Stapleton, before circling back and wrapping up around 3 p.m. Along the way, the tour will visit sites named for historical African American figures, some of national significance (Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglas) and some of local significance (like O.L. “Sonny” Lawson and Reverend Jesse Langston Boyd Jr.; more on that below).
One of the sites, Thomas Ernest McClain Park on the edge of Park Hill and Stapleton, is named for Gentry’s great-grandfather, the first African American to be a licensed dentist in Colorado. He came to Denver in 1906 after graduating from Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., and started his dental practice the following February. His best friend, Doctor Joseph Westbrook, came to Denver at the same time and is known today for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan—his light complexion enabled him to pass as white, so he attended Klan meetings in order to warn the black community of their plans.
These are just two of the historical figures that Gentry is tied to personally. Without a moment for thought, she can rattle off the names of countless others whom she either knew herself or whose children or grandchildren she grew up with.
“I feel like I’m the descendant of all of these other people that are in this room,” she said in a recent interview at the museum where portraits line the walls of two floors.
The individuals commemorated in the museum probably weren’t in your high school history book, but their names might still be familiar to you. Parks throughout the Denver metro area are named for notable African Americans—and several will be key stops on Saturday’s Beyond Five Points. Here are just a few:
Sonny Lawson Park at Welton Street and Park Avenue
The first Denver park to be dedicated to an African American, Sonny Lawson Park is named for O.L. “Sonny” Lawson, a pharmacist who was also instrumental in improving representation of the black community in Denver politics. “Because we were redlined, we had incredible restrictions on resources, so he was one of those people that wanted to make sure that we had access to resources and access to services,” Gentry said.
Lenore B. Quick Park at 26th and Ogden
This postage stamp of a park was named for Lenore B. Quick after the staff of her Head Start program proposed the idea to Denver City Council. Quick moved to Denver in the early 50s with her husband and dedicated much of her time to advocating for children, particularly in terms of education. “She was a children’s advocate and had a daycare center and did a lot of cutting-edge stuff to change the lives of children,” Gentry said. Today, the Head Start program at Annunciation Catholic School also bears her name.
George Morrison Sr. Park at Martin Luther King Blvd and Franklin
A classically trained violinist, Morrison attended the Columbia Conservatory of Music in Chicago and toured in Europe and throughout North America. In Colorado, he owned nightclubs in both Denver and Golden. “He was one of the cornerstones and catalysts for the jazz in Five Points,” Gentry said.
J. Langston Boyd Park at Martin Luther King Blvd and Colorado
It wasn’t until 2011 that this park, formerly called Northeast Community Park, received its name, which honors Reverend Jesse Langston Boyd Jr. He was the longest-serving pastor at Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is right next to the park. A civil rights leader who served with the Black Ministerial Alliance and helped form People Against Racism at Coors in the 80s, Boyd passed away in 2004.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams Park at Lafayette and 30th
Although he wasn’t local to Denver, Williams’ achievements are far-reaching. In 1891, he opened the first medical facility in the nation to have an interracial staff, and two years later, he performed the first successful open-heart surgery in United States. At the time, the American Medical Association didn’t accept black members, so Williams helped start the National Medical Association.
The Beyond Five Points tour is Saturday, February 23, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are required. $70 for History Colorado members; $95 for nonmembers. Find more information and register at historycolorado.org.