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Dexter Nelson II wants to nuance the telling of Black history in Colorado. That’s no small task, considering History Colorado, the institution he recently joined as associate curator of Black history and cultural heritage, is still unlearning long-held ideas and practices that have made many of those stories invisible.
With a little help from fellow Coloradans, however, Black folks will soon see more of the African-American experience in the West brought to light. This summer, History Colorado plans to launch the Black Heritage Trail, an interactive mobile app that maps sites and places of Black historical significance to explore throughout Colorado. The initiative will pair important locations, landmarks, and artifacts with oral histories from the community members who hold deep knowledge about them.
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In order to make that happen, the museum first needs help identifying those places and stories. Over the next several months, Nelson and the History Colorado team hope to recruit community members from across Colorado to assist in finding lesser known sites and sagas, like the first stone house built by Black homesteaders in Alamosa, or the The Dry, an early Black homesteader community south of Manzanola that thrived in the early 20th century. The Dry existed around the same time as Dearfield, Colorado’s other historic all-Black settlement, which was roughly 70 miles northeast of Denver. “Folks know all about Dearfield, because more artifacts remain there,” Nelson says. “But other communities existed and although many are gone we can preserve them through collecting oral histories from the people who called them home.”
Anyone interested can apply to become a volunteer “regional ambassador” for the program, a gig that will include gathering local stories about Black community history. Applications will be accepted until June 1, or until all available positions are filled, whichever comes first. “I’m basically sending people on assignment to go do the digging,” says Nelson.
That work will allow curious Coloradans to have Black history at their fingertips, with a combination of “virtual and in-person guided experiences” via the Black Heritage Trail app, which is expected to launch at some point this summer. The goal: If you, say, check the app and locate the stone house in Alamosa while on your drive down to the Great Sand Dunes, you could listen to modern-day descendant Jeanette Stribling-Bell tell you the story about the structure’s significance and browse a collection of related artifacts that you could then go see in-person.
The entire project will be funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and support from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Oral histories used in the Black Heritage Trail will also become part of the official state archives, helping to reverse the dearth of Black voices and artifacts currently in the state’s possession.
Nelson hopes that Coloradans from all across the state will reach out to share what they know about the history of their towns, families, churches, and communities. Heirlooms, momentos, and artifacts are of interest, too—anything from letters to paintings to political pins. But he and his colleagues are wary of asking for help in a way that feels transactional. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with community members who are weary of my request to collect their oral histories,” Nelson says, adding that many Black Coloradans have expressed that they don’t feel represented or welcome at History Colorado. Nelson and the museum hope to overcome that distrust and gain credibility.
The effort comes as museums like History Colorado are turning away from overtly racist practices of the past and reflecting on how to move their diversity work forward in a way that recognizes communities as equal partners in memory and historic preservation. “The overwhelming response from the community was they wanted to know more, and not just about Black history in Colorado,” says Madeline Alexander, the engagement coordinator for Black communities at History Colorado. “Like, what was the West doing during the civil rights movement?”
Along with Black Heritage Trail, History Colorado has added events celebrating Black history, as well as contemporary Black joy, scholarship, and artistry. The institution’s “Blaxplanation” series brings together scholars, authors, and artists to highlight perseverance and creativity. The inaugural event on March 8 featured Candace Taylor, author of Overground Railroad, discussing the history of the Green Book. The museum’s upcoming programming—including an Afrofuturism arts show in July with Colorado-based multimedia artist Floyd D. Tunson, and a fall event co-hosted by Youth Seen centered on Black LGBTQ folks—will also spotlight other essential conversations.
“All Black programming should not be coming through one door, but many,” says Dr. Marissa Volpe, chief of equity and engagement at History Colorado, noting that community engagement isn’t the role of one person or department, but a collective effort. “I think museums are hoping to move beyond transactional work to deep relationship work that asks the question, ‘How are we interrogating the past together to work toward something better?’ ”
Get Involved: Think you have some bit of Black Colorado history and a story to tell about it? Email Dexter Nelson II to become a volunteer ambassador at firstname.lastname@example.org. For up-to-date information on the Black Heritage Trail, visit the History Colorado Black history landing page.