Black History Month: Celebrating Three Women from Denver's Historically Black Community

Today is the last day of Black History Month and tomorrow begins Women's History Month in the United States. So we’d like to go local and highlight some of the important women from our region's own historically Black community.

Five Points in Denver, Colorado was one of the largest African American communities in the West in the early 1900s, partially because redlining restricted Black residents to this region of Denver. Home to hotels, theatres, entrepreneurs, lawyers, actors, world famous musicians and more, Five Points was known as a “Harlem of the West” for its thriving jazz and arts scene. Denver was a stop for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and other jazz legends. According to Purnell Steen, (a local Jazz player and cultural historian) Duke Ellington wrote Sophisticated Lady for a friend's daughter while staying with them in Denver. 

Charles Burrell, the first African American member if a major American symphony orchestra

Three Renowned Ladies of Denver

madame c j walker, an african american woman, driving an early model convertible car with the top down
1. You’ve probably heard of millionaire businesswoman Madam C. J. Walker and her cosmetic line for African American women. While she traveled extensively and lived in many parts of the US, she began her business right here in Denver, Colorado in 1905. She ran the business from Denver as a mail order company for several years before moving out of state. Today, you can visit a city park named after her.


hattie mcdaniel wearing a long velvet gown surrounded by fresh flowers

2. Hattie McDaniel is of course known as the first African American to win an Oscar for 1939 Gone with the Wind. But did you know she was from Colorado? McDaniel got her start as a performer at Denver East High School. In 1914 she founded a touring minstrel show with her sister, where Hattie “developed her trademark character: an assertive “Mammy” who defied and critiqued racial and gender stereotypes of the era through comedy” (CO Womens Hall of Fame) while touring Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. She is credited with being the first Black woman to sing on radio in the United States on Denver’s KOA station in the 1920s. McDaniel was also a community organizer and won a landmark case against segregated housing in Los Angeles.


3. Justina Ford was the first female African American physician in Colorado. She was prohibited from joining the CO medical board or practicing medicine in a hospital due to racial discrimination in 1899. Instead, she opened up her own home for practice. For over 5 decades she provided essential medical care for Denver’s Black, immigrant, and poor white communities. She reportedly delivered at least 7,000 babies. Her house still stands and is now the Black American West Museum in Five Points.

Sources: Wikipedia, CO Womens Hall of Fame, Essence, Denver By Foot, Brittannica, Denver Public Library, History Colorado.

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