The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library Reopens After Renovations
Positioned at the gateway to the historic Five Points neighborhood, the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library is one of only five public libraries in the United States whose mission is the collection and preservation of Black history. The legacy project, envisioned during the leadership of Denver’s first Black mayor, archives an abundance of cultural contributions to Colorado and the West.
On Monday, August 7, the treasured institution reopened its doors after a 15-month closure for renovations, just in time for its 20-year anniversary.
When it first opened in 2003, Blair-Caldwell was a much-needed hub for education and leisure. A reception, hosted by The Honorable Mayor Wellington Webb, was held outside the front entrance to inaugurate and celebrate the facility. Pride and excitement buzzed in the air as musical talents and poets ordained its presence. The new library would honor the past and pave the way to the future, with opportunities to learn from the rich history behind its walls.
On Saturday, August 12, days after the long-awaited reopening, representatives of Denver’s Library Commission and city officials gathered with members of the community to commemorate the 20 years that have since passed. Once again, Webb spoke at the reception; but this time, he challenged attendees with a bit of historical trivia to reemphasize the importance of the research library’s use.
“Who can name the first Black principal in Denver?” he asked the crowd.
With only a few members of the crowd timidly raising their hands, Webb pointed out that every hand should have been raised, with a reminder that if history is not shared with the next generation, it may become lost forever.
“We cannot let our history be destroyed, lost, stolen, stray or forgotten,” he warned.
A Lasting Legacy
The city of Denver elected Webb to its highest office in 1991, as mounting tensions over the growing crime rate demanded an innovative, powerful response. His first term was marred by events culminating in the 1993 “Summer of Violence,” but his commitment to transformative justice and economic advancement positioned him as the frontrunner for reelection in 1995.
Efforts to restore safety and rebuild from the egregious culture of violence that had plagued the city’s streets were successful, leading to his reelection to a third and final term in 1999.
For Webb, who taught Black Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, and his wife Wilma, who served 13 years in Colorado’s state legislature and carried the bill to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday, history was an important focus area which informed their work and service to the community.
The Webbs were concerned that the written history of Black people in Denver and Colorado was not being adequately maintained at any local museums or historical sites. They discovered that much of the remaining artifacts and documents were in the private possession of political leaders, churches, community-based nonprofit organizations, and individuals.
“There’s so much history and we need to capture that for young people,” the former mayor said. “So much of it is in boxes, or basements, or in our heads.”
Together, the pair dreamed up a vision for an institution that would preserve and showcase the many incredible contributions made by members of the Black community from early settlement to the present.
“Wilma and I came up with the idea of building a library that could speak to the contributions made by African Americans in Denver, Colorado, and the Rocky Mountain West,” Webb stated. “When we conceptually came up with the idea, there were no blueprints, there was no money, there was nothing.”
In 1997, Webb met with Rick Ashton, chair of the Denver Library Commission, along with Charleszine “Terri” Nelson and Gwendolyn Crenshaw, who worked as staff members at the Central Library, to discuss the unprecedented project. He endeavored to move the existing Five Points library location from the historic Glenarm YMCA, and build a museum above it.
Within two years, plans for a library dedicated to the collection of local and national Black history and culture were approved by the Denver Library Commission. It would be the country’s fifth and most recent library dedicated to the preservation of Black history, preceded by the Broward County African American Research Library which opened six months prior to Blair-Caldwell in 2002.
Nelson and Crenshaw got right to work, devoting themselves to the complex task of creating materials for the library.
“Much of our collection has come from individuals and organizations,” Nelson pointed out. “Among our early commitments was videotaping oral histories of senior citizens who had made important contributions, as well as those individuals who were the first African Americans in their careers and other endeavors.”
The library project was shaped into a repository for written and visual documents – a trailblazing establishment that Webb envisioned as a community stronghold in an area that would likely be subject to gentrification years after completion. He insisted that its location be perfectly situated on Welton Street, just north of Park Avenue and at the well-known entry of Five Points.
A Gateway to the Past
Blair-Caldwell shares a plaza with Sonny Lawson Park – the first ballfield in the city to host the Negro League games and the first park in Denver to be named after a Black person in 1972. Lawson, a district executive for the Democratic Party in East Denver, owned and operated Radio Pharmacy on Welton Street for 50 years. The library’s location is pivotal to acknowledging Five Points’ remarkable history.
Once known as “The Harlem of the West,” many of Denver’s Black residents were corralled in the area due to discriminatory redlining practices, yet the strength of the community was profound. In addition to being an economic corridor, with plenty of Black-owned businesses, the area was home to historic churches and a plethora of bars and clubs. Renowned jazz musicians traveled to the Mile High City to perform and were relegated to lodging at the Rossonian Hotel due to segregation from the city’s other hotels.
Webb forecasted the impending gentrification of Five Points due to its proximity to Downtown Denver and knew that the preservation of history belonged in the exact spot where history had occurred. At the anniversary celebration, he recognized that his predictions turned out to be true. The area has undergone drastic development within the last decade, and despite efforts to revitalize some of the historically significant buildings and businesses, very few traces of the past remain.
Gone are the days of the pig ear sandwiches at Zona’s, the twangy hot sauce of Kapre Lounge and Fried Chicken, and the juicy barbeque at the original Burgers & Bones, but the library is a constant reminder of yesteryear, and a location where memories are kept safe.
A New Era
The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library is named for Omar Blair, the Denver School Board’s first Black president who played an instrumental role in ending segregation within the Denver Public School District, and Elvin Caldwell, the city’s first Black city council member.
Webb pointed out that there could have been a different name for the library altogether. “Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas wanted to name the library after Wilma Webb,” he revealed. “She chose not to have it named after her, and said it should be elders from the community.”
While the main floor of the institution operates a full-service library, the top two levels are reserved for the preservation of Black history for which the building is purposed.
Level two features the Collection Archives and Research Library, along with a reading room where visitors can explore an array of photographs, manuscript collections, letters and diaries that are not available for checkout.
Level three houses the Western Legacies Museum, with artifacts and memorabilia detailing the settlement of Black pioneers and contributions made by modern heroes. The 7,000-square-foot exhibition space includes an African American Legacy corridor and a leadership hall.
Having worked hand in hand to bring their vision to life, the Webbs are both memorialized for their critical role in the inception of the library, with the Wilma Webb Research Archives Room on the second level, and an endearing replica and exhibition detailing Webb’s mayoral campaign trail.
The Charles R. Cousins Gallery, named for a man who moved to Denver as a Union Pacific Railroad dining car waiter and rose to fame as an investor and philanthropist, shares the third level and features exhibits from local artists.
After its first renovation since the building’s completion in 2003, Blair-Caldwell contains an updated HVAC system and revamped main level. However, the exterior and top two floors remain unchanged. Dexter Nelson II, the new museum and archives supervisor, has plans to update the museum with additions from the last 20 years of history. Nelson II, who previously worked as the Curator of Black History and Cultural Heritage at History Colorado, will utilize community feedback to determine what inclusions are needed.
Blair-Caldwell offers tours of its second and third levels to library visitors and individuals who wish to learn the history of the historic neighborhood.
With the majority of renovations being done to the library’s main level, Blair-Caldwell has a fresh new appearance that blends modernized touches with aesthetics that reflect the third-level museum.
The beloved arch and oil-painted mural titled “Freedom’s Legacy” by Kenyan artist Yvonne Munde, remains unchanged at the library’s entrance. The artwork features images of prominent local and national Black leaders and a stunning Western landscape.
Upon the mural’s completion in 2003, Munde made the following statement: “The people in the painting are displaying the figures from the civil rights movement who fought and died for our right to be free. The true power in the piece is not only the visual imagery of some of the greatest African Americans to fight for civil rights, but also in the individuals who carry those images. It is also in the hope to re-ignite the fire that is the legacy called freedom that African Americans struggled their entire existence for.”
On the other side of the arch, a comfortable seating area has been created, overlooking the new open floorplan. The circulation desk, previously situated near the front doors, has been relocated to another area. The bookcases have been updated with enlarged artwork displays of Colorado’s Black history and culture.
One of the new features on the first floor is the African American Circulating Collection, which contains some of the books that were previously maintained as non-circulating in the second-level archives. This new collection makes more fiction and nonfiction titles accessible to the public.
The children’s area has received updates, including a “Public Art” piece created by local artist Sam McNeil. The installment contains several tables decorated with artwork portraying children’s outside activities and pages from children’s books. To go along with the renovation, the library has created a new activity schedule for children.
“Storytime will become a weekly activity. We also will arrange occasional visits by authors of children’s books,” said newly-appointed branch supervisor, Jameka Lewis.
A space for young adults has been added to the main floor, which Lewis says will also be used for gaming, reading, and discussions.
Finally, the library is hoping to meet the needs of the community with new study rooms and updated community rooms that are available for public events.
Celebrating the Past, Looking to the Future
Funding for the renovation project was made possible by the Elevate Denver Bond, which was passed by Denver voters in 2017 for the Central Library and 10 branch libraries throughout the city. Additional funding was made available from the Denver Public Library Fund’s “Strong Library, Strong Denver” program.
The emcee of the anniversary celebration, James Davis Jr., who works as branch supervisor of the Bear Valley Branch Library, greeted the audience with a strong message. “This is a time to reflect on the past and the future,” he said.
Recognized for her role in Blair-Caldwell’s early organization, Nelson, affectionately referred to as a “Founding Librarian,” by Lewis, was honored at the event, and received a plaque commemorating her efforts. She recently retired after 45 years with the Denver Public Library system, with 25 years spent nurturing Blair-Caldwell and the Five Points community.
“The 20th anniversary is a fulfillment of the dream of 1997,” Webb declared, adding, “There is still work to be done. There are still stories that need to be told, and written.”