Black Cowboys and the Harlem of the West

File Photo: Stephan Gater (l) at the 2011 Leadership Summit at the Penn Center.

File Photo: Stephan Gater (l) at the 2011 Leadership Summit at the Penn Center.

Stephan Gater is a founding member of Denver African American Philanthropists as well as a member of the Mile High Mavericks. Stephan offers anecdotes and insights as he exudes hometown pride for the Mile High City.
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Denver — October is an ideal time to explore Denver, a month that offers a relatively mild climate in town and cooler temperatures up the mountains. As we gather in the beautiful Mile High City to help each other collectively reach new heights we also encourage you to take in all of the beauty and the history of the city and my hometown.

Denver is rated as having the fourth-most walkable downtown in the country so if you are up to it there are plenty of things available to explore including the Black American West Museum. The museum began as the personal hobby of Paul W. Stewart, who as a child playing cowboys and Indians, always had to be the Indian because he was told, “There is no such thing as a Black cowboy.”

One in Three Cowboys Was Black
After Mr. Stewart reached adulthood, he met a Black cowboy and learned that one out of three cowboys in the American West was Black. His search has took him to nearly every corner of the West, gathering personal artifacts, memorabilia, newspapers, legal documents, clothing, letters, photographs, and oral histories. It was this original Paul Stewart Collection that formed the nucleus for Museum which formally began operation in 1971. Located in the former home of Justina Ford, it is a sight to see.

Denver’s Five Points community is a very historic area located in the heart of the city. it originated in the 1880s as an upper middle-class neighborhood for professional and business men.  The city built one of its first cable streetcar lines into the area and numerous neighborhood businesses emerged along its tracks. White residents initially occupied the area, but a few prosperous African American families began moving in around the turn of the century.

Harlem of the West
Five Points was known as the “Harlem of the West”. It became a predominantly African American neighborhood in Denver because discriminatory home sale laws in other neighborhoods forbade black people from settling in them. From the 1920s to the 1950s

Light Rail along the Welton Street Corridor, from downtown to Five Points. (Source: Wikipedia)

the community thrived with a rich mix of local business and commerce along the Welton Corridor offering the neighborhood butcher, real estate companies, drug stores, religious organizations, tailors, restaurants, barbers and many other main street services. Welton Street was also home to over fifty bars and clubs, where some of the greatest jazz musicians such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and others performed. Black performers that other hotels in Denver would not accommodate stayed at the Rossonian Hotel, built in 1912, and performed there, making it a famous music venue.

Black doctors, lawyers, dentists, clergy, railroad porters, as well as cooks, janitors, domestic servants, and other service workers all made their homes in Five Points, attending its many churches, patronizing black businesses, supporting three newspapers, a YMCA and YWCA, baseball clubs, and social activities of all kinds. Five Points residents wanted for little—other than the opportunity to move into other neighborhoods or into higher economic brackets through education and jobs.

Five Points, circa 1885. (Source: BlackPast.org)

Today, many recognize the neighborhood’s important history, and efforts to renew and revitalize the neighborhood have begun to pay off.  Five Points received an historic district designation and important buildings along Welton Street have received state preservation money for restoration. Two of these buildings, the Rossonian Hotel and Benny Hooper’s Casino, played vital roles as gathering places for jazz aficionados.

The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, named in honor of Tuskegee airman Omar Blair and Denver politician Elvin Caldwell, houses a growing collection of research materials related to African Americans in the west is also located in this area. City leaders and planners along with preservationists are all working to restore the neighborhood’s former dignity and recognize its significant role in the life of the city.

A visit to the Mile High City puts you in easy access of some of Colorado’s prized peaks. Many mountains remain snow-capped throughout the year, which is a sight to see.

We look forward to your arrival so we may gather on the other side of the mountain that MLK spoke of, sharing the best practices of how we as average, everyday citizens can make a difference so that our communities and generations reap the full benefits of our work in supporting and shaping collective philanthropy.

See you in Denver.

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