Side Streets: History of blacks in Colorado Springs being preserved

By Bill Vogrin Updated: January 24, 2014 at 7:20 am • Published: January 24, 2014 | 12:00 am 0

In an old classroom of the former Buena Vista School, retired nurse Candice McKnight is teaching history to anyone who wanders in.

More important, she's preserving history, too, of blacks in Colorado Springs.

The classroom, now part of the Westside Community Center, is the rented home to the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs.

Inside the century-old room, McKnight and her society staff have built a library of about 2,000 books about blacks, including John Holley's classic "The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region," as well as books about blacks statewide and nationally.

There are also displays honoring black police officers in Colorado Springs, from the turn of the 20th century to current officers.

"There's a lot to this little place," McKnight said, as she and society secretary and curator Sarah Sankaouskas showed me around the room.

On one wall is a photo of Ron Stallworth, a former CSPD intelligence officer who made headlines after he became the first black to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. In 1979 he answered a newspaper ad placed by a Fort Carson soldier who was launching a Colorado Springs chapter of the Klan.

In phone calls, Stallworth convinced the Klansman he was a white racist and eventually had weekly phone calls with national KKK grand wizard David Duke. His work uncovered members of the Klan working in the military including two in sensitive positions at NORAD and resulted in their removal, according to news stories from the time. Copies of his KKK membership certificate and I.D. card, signed by Duke, are on display.

Another display features black city firefighters. There's also a display on the region's Tuskegee airmen - the first black military pilots who trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, starting in 1941.

The centerpiece of the display is the uniform of James Randall, who joined the famous squadron in 1945 and later was shot down during a 1965 bombing run over enemy territory in North Vietnam.

There are other fascinating museum pieces, like the black dolls on a book shelf and artwork including a painting of the famous Cotton Club, Fannie Mae Duncan's legendary downtown nightclub and one of the few places blacks could eat, drink and enjoy entertainment including comedian Flip Wilson, musicians such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Muddy Waters and Little Richard.

The society does much more than maintain the museum. It sponsors lectures on local black history - last May it hosted a talk by Stallworth - and it puts on quarterly workshops to teach people how to conduct genealogical research.

The activity represents the society's dual mission, which came about in 2005 when the Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs, founded in 1981, merged with the genealogical society McKnight had founded in 2000.

McKnight hopes to expand her museum and find it a new home in its own building, and she hopes soon to launch a website for the society.

She has ambitious plans for a genealogical research center with computers for folks wanting to trace their family histories. She also envisions a section dedicated to black nightclubs like Duncan's Cotton Club and another section devoted to black beauty salons and barber shops in the area and black cowboys and black-owned funeral homes.

But those plans remain on hold until the society finds a way to generate money through a membership drive or grants or donations.

Lack of funding already caused the society to suspend publication of its newsletter.

"We didn't have the money to sustain it," McKnight said.

And the $280 monthly rent for the classroom often comes out of McKnight's pocket.

"Most of the time, actually, unless someone gives us a donation," she conceded.

She needs a grant writer to help her find funding and dues-paying members or perhaps a church group to sponsor the society's activities.

Despite the financial strain, the society continues to reach out to the public with programs like the "Biographical Treasure Hunt" scheduled 11 a.m. Saturday at the Penrose Library downtown.

"Some people think I'm nuts and say that I'm wasting my time," McKnight said. "But this is important for our community. We're trying to keep our history alive. But we do need help."

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

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