For too long, Black history in Colorado has been ignored, according to the creators of a new mobile app that allows participants to access old photographs, oral histories and a podcast — all with the goal of preserving and teaching about the contributions of Black people in the state’s development.
The new Black History Trail, accessed through the History Colorado app, guides visitors to physical locations where they can explore, in person or virtually, the roles Black people played in building the West, an often forgotten story in American history, they said.
The Black History Trail uses History Colorado’s collection of books, manuscripts, artifacts and photographs to connect sites, places and stories in collaboration with Black communities statewide. The stops along the trail are divided into four regions where app users can learn about historic sites and stories that shaped the African American experience in Colorado.
“It’s not your traditional museum app, where you stand in front of a case, the case has a number, you punch in the corresponding number and then it tells you history,” said Dexter Nelson II, associate curator of African American History and Cultural Heritage at History Colorado, who created the the app’s content and is now encouraging people to use it.
“This is something where you can be on your couch or wherever you want to be. You can interact with history, you can listen to our oral history and then if you do decide you want to go to Fort Garland, or to Pueblo, or to Barney Ford’s house in Breckenridge, it will give you the tools to do that,” he said.
The Black History Trail is the first of many iterations planned for the History Colorado app that bridge a link to the past and honor communities that are regularly discriminated against and are negatively impacted by white supremacy, including Latino, Indigenous and LGBTQ communities, according to a news release from History Colorado, a 143-year-old nonprofit.
The project was made possible through a grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a private philanthropic organization.
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History Colorado is the only organization in the state with an app that focuses on Black history, app creators said, and it is emerging while many other Black historians are working to preserve African American history in Colorado.
“Histories of African Americans can be seen as an afterthought, especially in areas that I’m most familiar with, which is the midwest, and the intermountain west,” said Modupe Labode, a curator of African American history, who was the chief historian for History Colorado in the early 2000s.
“I don’t think anyone would believe that there were no histories of Black people, in Alabama or Los Angeles, but Black history oftentimes has been reduced to histories of racism, slavery and segregation,” she said. “And in places where there is not historically or in the present, a large population of Black people, there has been a tendency to overlook Black history in general.”
One of her goals as a keeper and preserver of Black history in Colorado was to tell “a true history” that centered on the contributions and experiences of people of color in Colorado to help teach about state history in a truly inclusive way, she said.
When viewers open the Black History Trail app, they can opt to learn about the southwest, southeast, northwest or northeast region of Colorado and take a virtual or in-person tour of historic places in each quadrant. The first layer of content includes stories about historical figures who are more well-known, followed by facts about historical people who are less well-known. One app user said it felt like they had downloaded an encyclopedia right into their phone, Nelson said.
The southwest region — which includes Mesa, Montezuma, Park and Costilla counties, among others — is notable for its pioneers, trappers and traders who were in the area before statehood in 1876. The tour highlights the Buffalo Soldiers, the earliest official Black regiment in the U.S. army, tasked with enforcing the federal government’s laws in Colorado territory. It also focuses on the story of John Taylor, a former Buffalo Soldier turned interpreter who intermingled with Southern Ute culture and society, according to an oral summary on the app.
The southeast region, which includes Pueblo, Huerfano, Kiowa, Otero and Bent counties, was a hub for early explorers, who often descended into the area in search of gold. James Beckwourth, a successful Black man, was one of those early explorers, who established early trading posts in Pueblo, and Reno, Nevada. “These posts would eventually become the cities we know today,” according to the app.
The southeast region also places a spotlight on Black farmers and landowners who came together to create the all-Black farming communities like The Dry, an abandoned farming community in Otero County, founded by African American homesteaders. Today, Alice McDonald is the last local resident of The Dry, working with organizations to highlight her family’s legacy, according to the app.
The northwest region includes Rio Blanco, Routt, Jackson, Grand and Summit counties, among others, and is one of the least populated areas in the state with breathtaking views and rolling foothills. The app’s northwest Colorado tour introduces people to Lincoln Hills, a mountain resort in Gilpin County created in the 1920s, a safe haven, where Black people could escape the risk of humiliation, violence and death. It was the only vacation destination for Black people west of the Mississippi river once built, according to the app.
That part of the tour also focuses on a home once occupied by Barney Ford, who was born into slavery in Virginia in 1822, to a white plantation-owning father and an enslaved Black mother. After he taught himself how to read and write without any formal education, Ford escaped slavery, and eventually made his way to Colorado, where he left a lasting local and national legacy as a prominent businessman and advocate for Black voting rights in the state, according to the app.
The northeast region, which includes Weld, Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, and Yuma counties, has been heavily populated by Black residents since the early 1800s. Dearfield, east of Greeley in Weld County, was purchased in 1910 by the Boulder entrepreneur Oliver Toussaint Jackson in 1910, who was inspired by Booker T. Washington’s desire to advance land ownership among Black Americans. The Homestead Act allowed Jackson to own land in Dearfield, which at its height, housed about 200 Black families, a service station, grocery store, a lodge and a dance pavilion, according to the app.
The well-known Five Points neighborhood in Denver formed in the late 1890s, when white residents moved into nearby suburbs. It became an area desirable for working-class Black people using the railyard to get to their jobs in other areas as porters, laborers and waiters. By the 1920s, Five Points was a predominantly Black neighborhood due to racially motivated housing policies that worked to keep them segregated from white communities, according to the app.
Five Points thrived for many years until civil rights legislation desegregated the housing market, and the area was hit by urban renewal. It gave Black residents more choice in deciding where they wanted to live, and many abandoned their homes for more affordable suburban housing. Many historic buildings were soon after demolished to make way for newer developments. But “redlining continues to block financial investments that would strengthen the Black community in favor of gentrification,” according to the app.
“For me, it’s about celebrating stories, and encouraging people to learn other points of view about Black history,” said Terry Gentry, a Black historian and engagement manager for Black communities on the app. “It shows innovation, it shows resilience, it shows their humanity, and it dismisses some of those stereotypes about our ancestors,” she said.
It may sound small to some, but for Labode, it has always been important to focus on letting her readers know that Black people have existed in Colorado even before statehood.
Colorado was a territory until 1876, and technically, slavery was illegal in the territory. However, enslavers from other nearby states would bring enslaved people with them into Colorado territory, she said.
“At the same time, there were people escaping slavery, who came into this region because slavery was in this kind of nebulous state,” she said.
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Still, people often assume that if slavery was illegal in Colorado, the territory had “no experience with people of African descent,” and that there was no racism problem in the region, she said. “And that is part of a much larger aspect of reading the West as white.”
“What that often usually does is it just sees Black people as objects, not as people who have interests and joys and sorrows of their own,” Labode continued. “I’m not minimizing racial oppression. But by looking at Black history only in that way, the focus is more on absolving the state, rather than approaching Black history with any sort of curiosity.”
When Labode wrote a monthly newsletter for History Colorado members, she focused on unusual stories about Black history that centered on current events.
Similarly, Sid Wilson, who led Colorado tours about Black history for years on motor coaches, said he built itineraries around Black Americans, who not only helped shape Colorado history but who stepped beyond the norm.
“You locate these people, you find the sites where they may have traveled, you find their stories, and people are always fascinated,” he said. “The Black presence out here — it’s extensive and it’s pretty cool.”
His online Black history guide includes content about the outdoors, written in a way that aims to engage Black participants, who are underrepresented in hiking, skiing and snowboarding, backpacking and other outdoor activities, especially in Colorado.
Jameka Lewis, a senior librarian at Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, a place where the Black history of Denver’s Five Points neighborhood and the entire Rocky Mountain West could be preserved and protected, said she works with her colleagues to find ways to creatively present Black history through programming, speaking engagements, presentations, library tours and other outreach opportunities.
“It is extremely important that institutions like Blair-Caldwell exist because there aren’t many places solely dedicated to the celebration of Black history, especially in areas where the Black population is relatively small,” she said.
Although Labode said she is unhappy with “where we are as a country right now,” she is still in awe of the past and all that was accomplished for and by Black people.
Experiences and systemic issues are shaped by historical choices, she said. The historical record can be used in liberating ways, but it can also be used to falsify the past and read the past as all white or less complicated than it is, she said.
“A lot of people choose not to acknowledge it, and say, ‘It’s just history,’ which is a throwaway line to say that it’s irrelevant,” she said. “We are shaping the future, even if people deny that or don’t acknowledge it. You can’t wish away what happened in the past, and you might actually learn something from it as well. And so I felt, and I still feel, that the history I do is a public service.”