We’ve had the past on our minds a lot lately, and even more in February as we’ve been contemplating Black History Month within a broader context of diversity, equity and inclusion.So we decided to dig in and talk to some people who know Black history best. Jameka Lewis is the senior librarian at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, a branch location within the Denver Public Library system. Her colleague, Terry Nelson, the senior special collections and community resource manager, contributed to these responses as well. Together, they co-manage the branch and special collections at Blair-Caldwell.
1. Jameka, why did you choose to become a librarian? What excites you about your work every day?
I’ve always loved libraries and knew that I wanted a career where I could combine my love of Black history with my love of educating and empowering others with knowledge. Librarianship is the perfect career for me to blend the two. The fact that I am able to be a part of an institution that focuses specifically on the celebration of Black history and culture excites me. I feel so honored to be a part of gatekeeping and protecting our history, all while teaching others about the incredible people who have made history in their everyday lives.
2. We understand that Denver Public Library recently added some new titles to help people learn more about the lives of African Americans in Colorado and the rest of the United States. Have you read them? And from which book did you learn the most?
Unfortunately, I haven’t read all of them yet! However, I often recommend White Rage by Carol Anderson, as I’ve read that one and have regularly talked about the violence that was (and continues to be) displayed against African Americans, especially in the fight for freedom and equality. I am extremely excited to get my hands on Phil Goodstein’s new book about the history of bussing in Denver. We get a LOT of research requests and questions about bussing and redlining. I think that this book will really help us to delve deeper into that history and the effects of bussing, redlining and other initiatives that still affect Denver today.
3. Which materials on African American history get checked out the most? Has the library seen an increase in circulation of these items in 2021 compared to other years?
Our Five Points history materials receive the most research and reference questions, as we specialize in that history. I wouldn’t say that we’ve seen an increase in circulation of these items, as most of these materials are found in our archives and special collections and aren’t always available to be checked out. But we continue to get tons of research requests and speaking engagements about different aspects of Five Points history.
4. The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library is on Welton Street in Denver, just two blocks from the intersection that gave the Five Points neighborhood its name. Among other landmarks, Five Points is home to Zion Baptist Church, Colorado’s oldest African American Church, and Station 3 of the Denver Fire Department, which was the first and only fire station in the city to be staffed by all African American firefighters until the Department was desegregated in 1958. What were the factors that led to Five Points becoming a center of African American flourishing in the early 20th century?
There were a few factors that contributed to Five Points becoming the center of AA life back then. For one, whites who lived in the area moved to newer places further from downtown, such as Capitol Hill. With the whites leaving, that opened up space for Black people who worked on or near the railroads to move to those areas. Five Points was the place for Black businesses, families and entertainment. The railroad workers were the main people who built the middle class in Five Points. Due to racism, Five Points had no choice but to become a self-sufficient community with its own doctors, lawyers, businesses, entertainment venues and everything else. There was a large increase in housing being built for whites, so they took advantage of the boom and moved to those areas. While that was good for them, that meant that they also took advantage of segregation and discriminatory practices that kept Black people from moving to those same areas. Redlining happened back then and discriminatory housing covenants turned Five Points from a culturally diverse suburb to a predominantly Black community.
5. Five Points was also a gathering place and performance hotspot for jazz musicians. Why were jazz greats, such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, drawn to the area?
Five Points was the center of Black culture in Denver and in the West. Jazz musicians were drawn to this area as a part of the circuit of Black areas and neighborhoods to visit, stay and perform in. Five Points was the perfect stop for musicians on their way to California. What’s interesting is that while most of these musicians performed in hotels and clubs outside of Five Points, due to segregation and discriminatory laws, they were only allowed to stay in hotels in Five Points, namely the Rossonian and the Casino Ballroom. They often enjoyed staying with community members as well, which allowed them to perform in the after-hours clubs in Five Points. Performing and visiting here guaranteed that these artists would have a lot of business in Denver.
6. In your experience, what do people consistently find most surprising about Black history in the West, and in Denver?
It’s been my experience that people are surprised by how extensive and rich our history is in the West and in Denver. People don’t often know that we’re located in what was the Harlem of the West, or that we have so many prominent politicians, business leaders and other professionals who are Black. They are also surprised that the history of Black people in the West pre-dates both Reconstruction and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It’s fun to educate people on the history of Black people being in the West and how that history happened before the larger stories of migration, etc., happened.
7. Is there a lesson or theme from history that you think applies particularly well to our present challenges with diversity, equity and inclusion?
There is an African proverb that says, “Until the lions have their own historians, the tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This has been one of the foundational phrases of my career, and I believe that we can learn a lot from this phrase. We should be better about allowing people to tell their own stories and to make sure that the stories that we tell from the past are accurate. The best way to capture history is to capture it as it happens and to ensure that the stories of what is happening are captured from the lens of all involved, not just the victors or those who talk the most/loudest. These stories don’t just come from history-making happenings; they come from those who are experiencing the effects of a lack of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives in their professional lives as well. Stories aren’t being told accurately because too many hunters have access to more means than the lions do. Interested in learning more about Black history through books? Check out Brands We Love: Source Booksellers. Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.