To most people, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a time to honor the civil rights leader and reflect on what has changed throughout the decades. 

But for Candice McKnight, who oversees Colorado Springs' Black History Museum and genealogical organization, history is something she embraces every day.

"Our history is important ..." she said. "If you don't know what happened years ago, you'll never understand the struggle now. You can apply it to your life so the same mistakes don't happen again."

On Tuesday, McKnight was honored with the 2020 Humanitarian Award at the Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission celebration. The accolade is given to those who are "driven, as Dr. King was, by the desire to help and make the world a better place," the commission said. 

McKnight's work with the museum and genealogical organization — the only organization to combine black history and genealogy in the state — has led her on journeys around the world, she said. Her message parallels King's: no one should go unseen.

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Candice McKnight, CEO and President of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs, holds the 2020 Humanitarian Award she was a recipient of at a Denver MLK event. Photo by Liz Henderson.

The award, she said, makes her feel like her organization's work is finally being recognized. It largely depends on volunteers to help run quarterly genealogy workshops for more than 45 people.

"It feels like it's now being answered. Like out of these 27, 28 years, it feels like now is the time ..." she said. "It felt good to know that somebody cared."

McKnight said she hopes that recent awards will help the organization grow, both through local memberships and a badly-needed new building. Two remote storage units contain thousands of artifacts that can't fit inside the museum's small room she rents at the Westside Community Center at 1628 W. Bijou St.

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Books, memorabilia, photos and mannequins dressed in historical clothing line fill the small room in the Westside Community Center that the African American museum occupies. (Parker Seibold/The Gazette)

The recognition of McKnight's life work, and this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, come at a time when the majority of blacks are questioning whether they have a place in Donald Trump's America.

recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll found 8 out of 10 black Americans believe President Trump is racist and would not vote for him in the upcoming election.

The MLK holiday still sometimes collides in Alabama and Mississippi with Robert E. Lee Day, which honors the Confederate general on January 19.

Racism and slavery are not unfamiliar to McKnight's genealogical searches. For many black people, finding records of their ancestors is extremely difficult because so many slave records were destroyed, she said.

She recalled a time when she and two grandsons traveled to St. Clair, Mo. Through their research, they found the stone auction block that her great-great-grandmother was sold on as a French indentured servant. The rock now sits at a St. Clair museum with her family's story on it, she said. 

But for McKnight, the focus on history and genealogy isn't about divisiveness. It's about incredible revelations that make a person feel whole, and learning from the past so it doesn't get repeated.

"I can't answer for all black people," she said, recognizing that each individual feels differently. "But it's so important that we keep our history alive ... not to let it die with time."

Contact Liz Henderson, 719-476-1623

Twitter: @GazetteLiz

Multimedia Journalist

Liz is a multimedia journalist who joined the Gazette staff in 2019.

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