NewsBlack History Month


Colorado's Black History: How our state historian is preserving stories of the 'overlooked, marginalized'

"We want to make sure that all of the stories of people who make up Colorado are included in the official history," said the newest State Historian
Claire Oberon Garcia State Historian
Posted at 3:34 PM, Feb 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-27 08:01:36-05

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Stories are how Claire Oberon Garcia understands the past. For more than 30 years, she’s taught Black literature at Colorado College. She digs into archives and pulls out stories that capture the Black experience in the early 20th century.

“Literature has a lot of ways of being true, of being illuminating, of conveying what happened, what something felt like,” Oberon Garcia said.

And now, her knowledge of Black stories is helping illuminate lesser-known parts of Colorado’s history.

Oberon Garcia is the first Colorado state historian who isn’t an historian.

Claire Oberon Garcia reading
Claire Oberon Garcia's love of books brings a new perspective to the State Historian role.

History Colorado, which preserves and shares the state’s history in museums and archives, chose Oberon Garcia to bring a “fresh focus on Black history” to its State Historian's Council.

"History Colorado really emphasizes that history is made of stories," said Garcia. “And its mission is to collect and disseminate all of the stories of the peoples who have made up the past, present and the future of our glorious state.”

But many of the ways we’ve told those stories in the past, haven’t included the full picture, she said.

“Traditional history tends to focus on leaders, change makers, industries, people who are distinguished for one reason or another,” she said.

But that is just one perspective.

“I would argue that there are no pure facts; that facts are always filtered through our perspectives,” Garcia said. “And I think one of the gifts of literature is to show how rich and multifaceted facts and truth are.”

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That’s why Garcia is focused on helping Colorado to preserve “the stories of how ordinary people lived, of whatever color, of whatever class” as part of the official history. A job she doesn’t take lightly at this point in history.

“The significance of history is now at the forefront of various national conversations. There are fears that certain histories are going to be erased or won't be taught in schools,” she said. “We're at a particular turning point in thinking about who we are, as a state, and as a nation.”

For Garcia, that includes expanding the view of Colorado’s Black history outside of Denver.

Stroud Family
The Stroud family's achievements are well-known in Colorado Springs, and Oberon Garcia hopes to expand that recognition.

She said there are “wonderful stories of perseverance, of hope, ambition” across the state. Like the Stroud family in Colorado Springs.

"Only a generation or two removed from slavery,” Kelley Dolphus Stroud and his sister Effie were among the first Black students at Colorado College, which carries on a scholarship in their name.

Dolphus Stroud was also an accomplished athlete. He qualified for the Olympics in 1930, but didn’t have the funding or support to travel to the finals. “He actually walked from Denver to Boston to get to the finals so that he could compete. And of course, by then, he was exhausted,” Garcia said.

But their accomplishments are mirrored by Black communities across Colorado.

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Garcia said one of the places she thinks about differently now through her research as state historian is the historic Black recreation center Lincoln Hills.

“They were living in an environment marked by segregation that was often very violently expressed,” she said. But they built a “safe space” with national significance.

“A lot of Black people from all over the United States and all walks of life came to Lincoln Hills,” she said. “We know that Lena Horne, the poet Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Dubois, people from all different walks of African American life at the time, passed through those spaces.”

Denver Public Library Special Collections_History Colorado green Book
Wendall “Wink” Hamlet (left) poses for a photo with his brother, Clarence, in the 1950s at Lincoln Hills in Pinecliff, Colorado.

Garcia said that in a time before the internet and platforms like Facebook, Lincoln Hills made conversations possible that set the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.

She has been working with History Colorado on special museum exhibits and preservation projects, like the Blaxplanation project and the State Historic Preservation Office’s efforts to protect historic sites across Colorado that were included in the Green Book, a guide published between the 1930s to 1960s to share places where African Americans could safely travel and recreate.

Garcia said she “was very surprised that there are dozens of Green Book sites in Colorado Springs,” and even a Black beauty salon in Montrose on Colorado’s western slope, where only about 0.57% of the population is currently African American.

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She’s also supportive of efforts to record oral histories from average Coloradans, such as the Museum of Memory Initiative. She said that especially in the context of Black history, “lived experience has always had an authority." Because many Black people were historically excluded from educational, legal and other institutions, and some were thus illiterate, "what we witnessed as Black people, what we experienced as Black people,” held it’s own authority, she said.

Collecting stories beyond traditional history is valuable “because to understand ourselves, and ourselves collectively, as the diverse community that we are in Colorado, we absolutely must understand our past.” One way she's supporting those efforts is through a new collaboration with the African-American Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs.

At History Colorado's museums across the state, exhibits like "The Dry: Black Women’s Legacy in a Farming Community" and "buffalo soldiers: reVision" share stories of Black people who helped shape the West.

Alice McDonald and her award winning cow Winter, 1950
A photograph from History Colorado's "The Dry" exhibit shows Alice McDonald and her award winning cow in the winter of 1950.

Outside of History Colorado, Garcia said some communities are similarly working to highlight Black history, such as the Museum of Boulder’s “Proclaiming Colorado’s Black History!” exhibit, whose creators sought her feedback as they prepare to share the exhibit across the state.

She also hopes to help History Colorado bring together Black scholars to create the institution’s first book devoted entirely to Colorado’s Black History.

Looking ahead, Garcia said she sees opportunities in the upcoming 2026 anniversary marking 250 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 150 years since Colorado’s entrance into the Union.

Through the America 250 – Colorado 150 project, History Colorado will continue incorporating stories of communities "who have not been part of the traditional narratives of Colorado,” including Black, indigenous, LGBTQ+ and women’s experiences, she said.

"There is a special emphasis not just on Black history, but on finding the stories and disseminating the stories of peoples who have been overlooked, marginalized or silenced in traditional historical narratives of the state," she said.

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