For years, many of the stories celebrating Black Coloradans’ contributions to the West lay in private collections—or remained completely undiscovered. That is, until the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library opened in Denver in 2002. The staff had spent several years collecting documents, pictures, and more from Black families around Denver, and the facility became a precious repository for their stories, as well as a launchpad to find new ones.
That legacy continues with Stevie Gunter, a Black archivist who earned their master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Denver in 2020. Thanks to funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency working to support museums and libraries, Gunter was hired by the Blair-Caldwell research library to lead the digitization of 14 prized collections.
Other Centennial State institutions are joining in the excavation process, too. In September 2021, History Colorado hired Dexter Nelson II—who received a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Central Oklahoma and says his parents taught him the value of knowing where you come from—to become its first Associate Curator of Black History and Cultural Heritage. “There are a lot of people who identify as Black or African American who haven’t been given their credit,” Nelson says. “It’s important to undo that.”
Here, we asked both Gunter and Nelson to share a few of the underrecognized Black Coloradans they’ve learned about during their work, so we can help give them the spotlight they deserve.
Why: Made sure Black Coloradans enjoyed Second Amendment rights, too.
Backstory: Smith, who lived from 1911 to 1989, opened Rhythm Records and Sporting Goods in Five Points in 1939. The shop combined his two great loves: music and owning a gun. Smith, who was a music promoter, businessman, and disc jockey, was also Colorado’s first African American deputy game warden, the first Black member of Denver’s Chamber of Commerce, and Colorado’s first Black outfitter licensed to sell firearms. That last distinction was no small thing in Jim Crow America, where Black folks lived under constant threat of vigilante and extrajudicial violence—but were often denied Second Amendment protections. “If you think about the time in which [Smith] grew up, there was a huge KKK presence in Colorado,” says Gunter. “It was important to have the right to protect yourself. Smith’s shop challenged what the Second Amendment looked like and who it was actually for.”
John R. Henderson Jr.
Why: Built Denver (literally) and carved out a place for Black architects in the state.
Backstory: As the first Black recipient of an architecture license in Colorado, Henderson helped design several important buildings in the state, including the US Courthouse and Federal Building. But the home he and his family lived in—which still stands on Twenty Sixth Avenue, the former line separating Black and white Denverites’ homes—is believed to be his favorite. Its H-shaped design was inspired by Henderson’s favorite architect, a modernist named Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and featured many glass walls throughout. “His son once joked that he had to throw on a robe as soon as he woke up,” History Colorado’s Nelson says, “to stay decent.” Henderson, who was born in Kansas in 1921 and died in 2018, is the subject of a current exhibit at University of Colorado Denver, where design enthusiasts can admire his designs and see his old drafting assignments.
Why: Helped develop Black journalistic talent in the Mile High City.
Backstory: Jones was born in Georgia, studied education, and spent more than four decades teaching in Aurora, Denver, and Los Angeles Unified school districts, as well as overseas. But in 1978, Jones and her then husband, John Mitchell, did something truly historic: They founded the first and only Black lifestyle magazine in Denver, Odyssey West, to focus on “the accomplishments and contributions of Afro-Americans in the urban west,” Jones said in an autobiographical statement in her collection at Blair-Caldwell. Jones combined her love for education with local journalism by, as she wrote in her statement, “providing opportunities for young writers and photographers to launch literary careers and internship opportunities for journalism students.” Gunter says the photographs from Odyssey are beautiful. “One of the subjects that she captures is a diverse cross section of Black people in Colorado,” Gunter says. “If I could talk to her, I’d want to know what brought her to these people specifically?”
Why: Wrote a version of the Green Book before the official Green Book ever came out.
Backstory: To address the dangers of traveling as a Black person, Victor Hugo Green published the first version of the “Negro Motorist Green Book” in 1936. The series of travel guides pointed those on the road toward gas stations, hotels, and other businesses whose owners would not discriminate against them. It was a useful resource—but Green was, apparently, not the first to come up with the idea. Hackley, who was also one of the first Black attorneys in Colorado and was a clerk with Denver County for more than a decade, cowrote Hackley & Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide For Colored Travelers in 1930. “Victor Green’s first edition actually had a lot of the same entries as Edwin’s,” Nelson says. “And a lot of them were in Colorado, like the Rossonian Hotel [a famous jazz club in Denver].” Hackley had actually moved to Philadelphia by the time he wrote his guide, but considering the many years he spent in Denver (he was editor of the Statesman, one of the major African American newspapers that would eventually become the Denver Sun), we still claim him as our own.