African Americans in Colorado Springs
In his poem, One Way Ticket, Langston Hughes eloquently described the exodus of millions of African Americans out of the South following the Civil War. Pushed out by repressive Jim Crow laws, acts of violence and intimidation, and economic and political repression, Blacks moved Any Place That is North and West. This permanent exhibit explores what they found when they arrived in Colorado Springs, the supportive community they created for themselves, and the role they played in shaping the city we live in today.
An enduring myth in American History is that the nineteenth-century west offered settlers complete economic, political and social freedom, unfettered by the traditions and limitations of the east. But in fact — Americans moved west with their values and prejudices intact. Many white northerners and westerners objected to slavery in principle but did not welcome free Blacks as their neighbors and routinely voted to deny them suffrage and equal access to education.
A great deal of recent scholarship has been dedicated to studying both the impact of the Great Migration (1915-1970) on industrial cities of the north, and the independent communities of Exodusters on the Great Plains. However, the history of African Americans in small communities across the west has largely been ignored. There are many stories to tell as the Black population in the west increased dramatically following the Civil War. According to historian William Loren Katz, “Between 1870 and 1910, while the total black population (of the country) more than doubled, the mountain states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada increased thirteen fold.”
Lacking both an urban center and a significant number of industrial or manufacturing jobs, Colorado Springs did not attract the same number of Black residents as Colorado’s capital city of Denver. The Black population in Denver grew from 237 people in 1870 to 5,426 in 1910. By contrast, in 1870 Colorado Springs had yet to be founded (1871) and the United States Census recorded one African American in all of El Paso County. By 1910 the Black population in Colorado Springs had grown to 1,009 residents and accounted for just 3.3% of the population.
African Americans migrated to Colorado Springs in small numbers but for a variety of reasons. Some families came here for their health, others to reunite with friends and family, while many were pulled west by the promise of better educational and employment opportunities. However, once they arrived they faced many obstacles. As America entered the twentieth century, racial attitudes across the country hardened and African Americans in Colorado Springs increasingly faced de facto segregation and discrimination in the North and West.
Blacks familiar with de jure (in law) segregation in the Jim Crow South often found de facto (in practice) segregation in Colorado Springs confusing and harder to cope with on a daily basis. As Lulu Stroud Pollard remembered, “It was worse than anything in the South. You see, in the South you knew where to go. You had signs. You knew what you could do. In Colorado Springs you had no idea what you could or couldn’t, and still you knew the law said you could do everything. Despite overwhelming obstacles, the lives, work, faith, philanthropy, and perseverance of Black Families in Colorado Springs has helped shape the community we live in today.