Side Streets: A house where history blossomed

By Bill Vogrin Updated: December 20, 2013 at 5:09 pm • Published: December 20, 2013 | 12:00 am 0
photo - George Williamson, grandson of George Roberts, holds a photograph of Spencer Penrose, Jack Dempsey, and his grandfather while standing for a portrait at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Thursday, December 19, 2013.   (Kent Nishimura, The Gazette)
George Williamson, grandson of George Roberts, holds a photograph of Spencer Penrose, Jack Dempsey, and his grandfather while standing for a portrait at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Thursday, December 19, 2013. (Kent Nishimura, The Gazette)

On Sunday, I told of the history our community lost on Thanksgiving Day when fire gutted a vacant 125-year-old house on East Cucharras Street on the southeast edge of downtown.

Turns out it was one of just two houses where blacks driving across the country in the 1940s and '50s could find a room in segregated Colorado Springs, according to listings in the Negro Motorist Green Book.

Now, I'm tickled to tell the rest of the story of the George and Mayme Roberts house. And it includes a twist I'd have never predicted involving the Roberts, their descendants, The Broadmoor hotel and its founder, Spencer Penrose.

In doing research, I found a grandson of the Roberts still living in the city: George Williamson. But his wife, Linda, told me George was out of the country.

Well, he returned Wednesday and gave me some fascinating insights into his grandparents.

George Williamson, 64, said he was aware that the Roberts house had been a boarding house, run by Mayme while her husband worked as a waiter at area hotels and as a doorman at The Broadmoor for 16 years.

"I remember my grandmother taking linens and table cloths to the laundry and setting a pretty nice table for guests," he said. "Her rooms usually were occupied by people crossing the country, like chauffeurs."

But he was surprised to learn the house had been advertised in the national Green Book as a black-friendly "tourist home" along with another house on Royer Street.

Williamson also recalled stories his grandfather told of his work at The Broadmoor.

"My grandfather would take Spencer Penrose home, pull off his boots and put him to bed when he'd had too much to drink," Williamson said with a chuckle.

He even has a photo of his grandfather standing beside heavyweight champion boxer Jack Dempsey and Penrose, who amassed a fortune in mining and real estate and became a prime benefactor to Colorado Springs through his philanthropy.

"Do you know how unusual it was for a black doorman to be in a photo like that?" Williamson said.

He also told me the house had been vacant since his uncle, Maurice, died in 1996, tied up in probate. He said it will be demolished.

I told him of the reader response to his grandparents' story, including a note from Willie Breazell, former Colorado Springs School District 11 board member.

"Your article touched a lot of us who lived in that period," Breazell said. "The years of discrimination and segregation growing up in the South haunted my dad all the way to his deathbed. He was 94. He never wanted to go back to his native home of Shreveport, La., due to very negative childhood memories."

The Roberts house also brought back memories of Breazell's childhood as a black growing up in Las Cruces, N.M.

"As part of an informal network, my parents would rent out a single room in the front of our modest home in Las Cruces occasionally to black couples traveling long distance," he said.

And he recalls his family's grueling car trips to see relatives in California "without the availability of any type of hotel or motel to spend the night."

I tried to imagine the stress of driving across Southwest deserts, with my family, in the years before interstate highways, trying to find a place to stay. But Breazell said it was even worse than that.

"In many cases we were denied the use of toilet facilities at gas stations along the way," he wrote.

All of which brings me back to George Roberts, The Broadmoor and the Williamson family.

"So you know that Spencer Penrose's home became the offices of the El Pomar Foundation after he died?" Williamson said. "Well, that place where my grandfather was a servant became a place where my son had an office as a member of the staff of the El Pomar Foundation."

Wow! How cool is that?

But it gets better.

"And my wife, Linda, is a purchasing manager at The Broadmoor," Williamson said, his smile shining through the telephone. "And my daughter even worked in management there."

He chalks up the turnaround in the family's fortunes to a divine conversation.

"It must have been something in my grandfather's heart," Williamson said. "I'm sure he asked God to turn this around: 'I'm just a servant, but maybe my grandchildren can come back with dignity.' That's what I think."

As I pondered all the irony, I thought of a conversation I had with Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, about the need to remember these stories and commemorate structures such as the "tourist homes" on Royer and the link to the age of segregation and racism in Colorado Springs. I asked if history plaques might be appropriate or a walking tour developed to explain their significance.

"These stories show a different time period and how much society has changed," Mayberry said. "It's important to remember. And it wasn't all that long ago. We still have people in our community who lived this experience."

Mayberry said sites such as the Royer house and its connection to the Negro Motorist Green Book are exactly the kinds of things he hopes to include in a new digital walking tour project his staff is developing.

"We are hoping to use emerging technologies, computers, apps and mobile devices, and use items in our collection to illustrate these events and eliminate the need for expensive plaques," Mayberry said.

What a great idea. These stories, and photos and houses should be preserved so we understand what our neighbors went through and never forget.

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

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