DENVER – Historians and community members throughout Colorado are working to preserve places and oral histories with significance to Black history.
History Colorado has launched two projects to help in the effort.
“We’ve been working on documenting the Green Book sites around the state and discovering so many places we didn’t know existed. And that’s ongoing work,” Terri Gentry, History Colorado Engagement Manager for Black Communities said.
The Green Book was a segregation-era travel guide that featured businesses that were welcoming and safe for Black travelers to patronize. The guide included Colorado businesses in several of it's editions.
“We’ve also been working on a project called Museum of Memory where we’ve been going to communities to talk to community members about their experiences in that neighborhood and find out more about undiscovered places and people around the state," Gentry said. "So, we are just getting started. We’ve been working on this for 3 years, on the Museum of Memory, and probably about 6 or 8 months on the Green Book process,”
donnie betts, a documentary producer and director who spells his name using lowercase letters to honor his ancestors, has also been working to capture Black history throughout the state.
In addition to producing a documentary about Dearfield, an all-Black settlement founded in the early 1900s, he helped create an audio tour for Denver’s Historic Five Points neighborhood.
Five Points was one of the only neighborhoods Black Coloradans were allowed to live in due to a practice called redlining in Denver.
“I was contacted by the Architectural Foundation of Denver to do a walking tour about the history of the buildings, because as I like to say, these buildings, if the walls could talk, those are the stories that really would enrich your lives,” betts said. “My love of history inspired my work about Five Points. When I first moved to Denver many, many years ago Five Points was a place that I wanted to come to see what the history was all about… Five Points has the history of Denver's black community in it.”
betts said many of the buildings have connections to major U.S. historical figures.
“What’s now a Wellness Center (Urban Sanctuary) was once the mortuary, Douglas mortuary that was founded by Frederick Douglas’s two sons,” betts said. “Famous people walked through here, down Welton Street. Sonny Liston, walked through here. Before his bout with Muhammad Ali, he trained here.”
But betts said Five Points has already lost some buildings that were important to the Black community.
“The petal shop we've lost down here. It used to have great flowers and things like that. That's a place that I knew, when I first started doing the tours...was still there. But now it's gone,” betts said. “The Wheatley apartments, right on the corner here. That was a home of the YWCA and so many powerful young ladies that became figures in Denver society, making history in Denver, went there, took dance classes, learned to be ladies, as they called it at that time."
betts continued: "It was a shelter for a lot of them, too. A lot of them lived there. You hear stories where young ladies, when they first moved to Denver, that was a place that they could live. Because of the red line, they couldn't always live just anywhere.”
The Wheatley developers’ contacted betts to ask for help keeping the YWCA history alive in the new apartment building.
“I knew some of the people who actually were part of the YWCA, when they were growing up, I said ‘why don't we have them tell their stories?’ Because nothing I can say, would be as powerful as their own stories," said betts. "So, I recorded four to five of those stories about the people who were there and grew up there, or lived there and took classes there. So now as you walk into the building, the residents can swipe the monitor. And you can hear their stories…it was named for Phyllis Wheatley, the first published Black author in America,"
betts and Gentry said they hope to save as many pieces of history as they can.
“We are in danger of losing a lot of places because the challenges people face in preserving them,” Gentry said. “It’s a proactive move on History Colorado’s part to make sure that we’re not losing a lot of these places…Black history is our nation’s history.”
History Colorado has a form community members can fill out to submit places they think should be preserved.
This is part 1 of a 4 part series. Throughout the month of February, Denver7 will travel across the state featuring preservation efforts underway for buildings with strong ties to the state’s history.