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In some cases, those terms have been included here to acknowledge and accurately reflect the experiences of Black Americans in Fort Collins and the challenges they faced, and sometimes still face. Check out their website for updates. Find Out More.
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Access Brochure Companion. Early Spanish expeditions and American territorial expansion in the 19th century brought both enslaved and free people of African descent into what are now the western states. Throughout the history of the colonization of North America, Black people have exemplified resilience in the face of persistent attempts to marginalize their communities.
Their story is one of continued perseverance, community-building, and resistance against systemic racism—a theme that is reflected in Black history across the United States, including western cities such as Fort Collins.
Black migration to the American West accelerated ificantly in the 20th century as individuals and families sought opportunities for self-determination beyond the Jim Crow South. In many western communities, Black families found greater freedom in urban and rural enclaves where families ed early Black pioneers and established a shared sense of community and protection.
In Black farming colonies such as NicodemusKansas, and DearfieldColorado, and in urban neighborhoods established in bigger cities such as Topeka, Kansas City, and Denver black professionals dating Collins, Black Americans left Southern states to form new communities that afforded more freedom and good-paying jobs. They also established neighborhoods in smaller towns and cities such as Fort Collins in response to labor demands in mining, beet sugar production, the service industries, and other job sectors.
In every aspect of life in the American West, from the military to business to religious worship to community activism, Black Americans faced endemic racism but continued to fight for and win respect for their labor, their professional expertise, their influential talent, and their contributions to American culture and society. Map of redlined neighborhoods, including Five Points near the center.
While western states like Colorado often provided the prospect of opportunity for Black families, the racism that plagued most of the nation remained a persistent barrier. While there were fewer than African Americans in Colorado inthe territory failed to achieve statehood until largely because the white, male electorate initially refused to support the continuance of Black male suffrage—a condition of statehood required by the Reconstruction-era Congress.
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Homes, churches, and Black fraternal and social clubs were important places for building community and organizing for progress in the public sphere, such as school integration and the passage of a civil rights bill in Black professionals and business owners grew inas did the middle class made up of barbers, waiters, and porters. Plat map schedule of restrictions for Slade Acres, a small neighborhood south of City Park in Fort Collins platted innoting a covenant barring any but white individuals from owning property in the neighborhood. While the overt power of the Klan and other white supremacist organizations to control the levers black professionals dating Collins government declined in later years, discriminatory and racist practices endemic to American society continued.
White property owners and landlords frequently discriminated against Black residents well into the s through restrictive racial covenants that prevented purchase of property in many neighborhoods, and refusing to rent to Black tenants. Both practices perpetuated racial segregation and the generational wealth gaps found today between Black and white Americans.
Racism in the legal system also protected strict boundaries of racial identity in Colorado, including an anti-miscegenation law on the books until a law prohibiting mixed-race marriages. After the Second World War, the Colorado legislature passed a series of Civil Rights reforms including a ban on racially restrictive housing covenants, a act prohibiting racial discrimination in public employment, and a fair housing law in Although these laws were passed, their lackluster enforcement and implementation remained a key civil rights issue into the s.
Later U. Supreme Court case outlawed private-sector employment discrimination in Colorado in and forced an end to segregation in Denver Public Schools in The legacy of this discrimination remains alongside the individual stories of success. Because Black lives were often forced to the margins, our official historical record frequently obscures their stories and the places associated with their lives. As a result, Black historic sites are far less recognized than the sites associated with the white community, and in many cases, have been lost to redevelopment and urban renewal projects.
Below, we explore this legacy in Fort Collins. Charles H. Clay in Fort Collins. Courtesy of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. Like many smaller western communities, Fort Collins was home to a small but vibrant Black community from its early days.
Census and newspaper records mention several Black residents, mostly making a living as janitors, domestic workers, or porters for the railro, hotels, and other businesses. The census documents fifteen Black residents in five households in and around downtown Fort Collins, most notably the Burnsides family. However, these s are artificially low, as many residents were missed in censes and directories because they were not here long enough or simply were not recognized in official records.
Despite its small size, the Black community in Fort Collins reflected the same optimism for growth and more permanent security that was found in the city as a whole. Fort Collins included several families who were part of that network and committed to expanding their collective presence in northern Colorado.
The Clay family was among the most prominent, long-standing of these families in early Fort Collins. Charley Clay arrived in Colorado in as a cook accompanying a military detachment sent to the Overland stage station at Fort Latham several miles southeast of Greeley. He arrived in Laporte the following year, where he found work as a barber and cook.
Although not appearing in the census, Clay was well-known in the Fort Collins area by as a caterer and cook. Charles and his wife, Anna, had seven children. The Clay home at Maple, believed to have been located along a mid-block alley west of Washington Park, was the center of Black social life in Larimer County during the early s. His son, Charles Clay, Jr. The Clays hosted visitors and entertainers and meetings and important social gatherings, such as the local chapter of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Literary Society, a national organization named for the famous Black poet that discussed contemporary social and political issues.
Most of the large Clay family had dispersed to other communities or had passed away by the time the family patriarch was laid to rest in Grandview Cemetery in Charles Jr. She lived in the home in while working as a janitor at the Empress and Lyric Theaters, but byshe had moved away. Martha Lyle, center, with unidentified friends or neighbors in front of N Meldrum, circa During this same period, other Black families put down roots in north Fort Collins.
Harkless and Hattie Hicks were living in the residence at N. Meldrum Street by They moved next door to N. Meldrum in and remained at that location throughwith Harkless working as a janitor at various businesses around town. William and Mattie Lyle of Kansas moved into N. The Lyles moved into N.
Meldrum after Hicks passed away.
Mountain Avenue. Mattie Lyle made local civil rights history in when she successfully sued the owner of the State Theater on North College for discrimination in Larimer County Court. Although they only lived in Fort Collins for a very short time, the McDaniels are the most widely known Black family in early Fort Collins history.
Henry and Susan McDaniel moved with their children from Wichita to Denver, and for a brief time just after the turn of the 20th century the family lived in Fort Collins at Cherry Street while Henry worked locally as a teamster. Henry and Susan were gospel singers, he was also an itinerant Baptist preacher, and several of their children grew up to be talented performers.
Hattie is most remembered for being the first Black American to win an Academy Award, for her role in Gone with the Wind.
Other Black families moved into homes farther west, such as the Goodalls and Birdwhistles. In several cases, despite the limitations of segregation and racism, these local families were able to invest in real estate, purchase automobiles to increase their independent mobility, and provide educational and social opportunities for their children that served their ambitions to build financial security and professional success.
Despite these opportunities, one of the key challenges faced by Black Americans who were newcomers to the West, or simply visiting, was identifying and negotiating the boundaries of informal and legalized segregation, economic discrimination, and racism. Some Black families, such as Charlie and Mamie Birdwhistle, helped navigate those boundaries by providing advocacy and safe places to lodge and visit. The Birdwhistles also moved into west Fort Collins on Oak Street and used their residence to provide social gatherings and church services for the Black community as well as a place for travelers to stay when visiting Larimer County.
Although never listed in the Negro Motorist Green Bookrecords show the Birdwhistles regularly black professionals dating Collins musicians who came to the city to entertain local white audiences but were not welcome in local hotels. Charlie Birdwhistle was also a respected pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal AME Church, but the community was unable to amass enough resources and momentum to overcome the barriers to creating a permanent church location in Fort Collins. Without this important central feature of the Black community, it was more difficult for that community to grow.
At the same time, white supremacist organizations like the Klan continued activities in Fort Collins, including rallies at the America Theater on North College Avenue, participation in Colorado Agricultural College events, and a cross-burning in City Park in With limited employment opportunities, few options for religious worship, and still-rampant racism, many families like the Lyles moved to urban areas by the s for better jobs, larger church congregations, and safer neighborhoods.
One of the primary draws for many Black Americans who moved to Fort Collins was a college education. However, because discrimination in northern Colorado remained high, only a few Black students attended Colorado Agricultural College CAC in its early years. The first known of these was among the first Black Americans to attend a land grant institution anywhere in the American West: Grafton St. Clair Norman. Norman was only sixteen at the time and was likely drawn by the prospect of a familiar face in Ellis and the opportunity of a college education.
His decision may also have been influenced by the recent lynching of a Black man in Oxford, Ohio that year, fifteen miles from Hamilton. Norman was an extremely involved student beyond his studies between and Norman went on to serve in the U. During peace time, he was a teacher, instructing in math and science at colleges in Alabama before becoming an insurance administrator.
He was killed by a driver while exiting a streetcar in Birmingham, Alabama, in Grafton St. Courtesy of Colorado State University. Norman paved the way for other Black students to follow at CAC. InMaceo Spratlin of Denver and Ms.
Helen Dobbs of Evergreen are believed to be the first Black students to enroll at the College since Norman attended in the s.