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A cleanup volunteer painted the heart on the History Colorado Center.
A cleanup volunteer painted the heart on the History Colorado Center.
Evan Semón Photography

The Denver Protests Made a Mark on Colorado History...and History Colorado

"People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them," James Baldwin wrote in "Stranger in the Village," an essay included in his history-making 1955 collection, Notes of a Native Son.

This entire country is trapped in history right now, a history of racial injustice that started 400 years ago, when the first Africans were brought to this land as slaves, and continues today, when black men still die at the hands of law enforcement officers. And not just in Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Ferguson, Missouri, but here in Denver, where in the past decade, both Marvin Booker and Michael Marshall were killed while being restrained by Denver sheriff's deputies.

This country's inability to truly deal with the legacy of slavery and the unjust treatment of African-Americans is now fueling protests across the country, and last week it was written out in stark relief not just on graffitied government buildings downtown, but also structures housing the very institutions helping us come to grips with the past. The Denver Public Library, a sanctuary for freedom of speech and a champion of free access to information, has shown such compassion for the underclass that it hired peer counselors to help the homeless and mentally challenged; it was vandalized during the first weekend of protests.

The History Colorado Center on May 29.
The History Colorado Center on May 29.
Evan Semón Photography

And just down the block, nonsensical slogans ("Pigs Luv Dick") were scrawled all over the History Colorado Center, which in recent years has turned away from cheesy blockbusters (Toys) in favor of homegrown exhibits that shine a light on some of Colorado's darkest chapters. In 2013, History Colorado closed Collision, a Disney-fied display on the Sand Creek Massacre whose approach and inaccuracies added insult to injury for descendants of the Arapaho and Cheyenne killed by Colorado volunteers during the Civil War; since then, it has been consulting with tribal representatives on a replacement exhibit that will set the story straight and put it in a greater context. (In the meantime, a Sand Creek Massacre proposal at the Colorado Capitol has stalled — but at least that meant it was not damaged during the protests, as was a monument to Armenian genocide.)

El Movimiento, which started out as a temporary display on this state's groundbreaking Chicano movement during the 1960s, is now a core exhibit at History Colorado, joining Mountain Haven: Lincoln Hills, 1925-1965, a permanent showcase of the Rocky Mountain haven where African-Americans could leave discrimination behind. And while the Women's Vote: Centennial series set for this anniversary year of the passing of the 19th Amendment has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic closure, volunteers continue to work with History Colorado, deciphering some of the century-old letters in its women's-suffrage collection.

Through the years, History Colorado has collected many contemporaneous accounts and materials that capture history: notes left on the fence outside of Columbine High School after the shootings there; signs carried during the first Women's March. And History Colorado is already collecting "projectiles, discarded cans of spray paint, and a placard reading 'Love is the only answer' that was left in the street outside," the institution reports, "in addition to taking documentary photographs. These items will be reviewed by a curatorial team adding materials to History Colorado's collection for our History in the Making initiative."

Even as history is being made, History Colorado is recording it. "There's a very unique sort of conversation of so much that's going on in the world right now," says executive director Steve Turner. "It's hard to find a time when we were looking at as much change.... To shift toward a more moral country really requires something that grabs our attention."

That certainly came with the murder of George Floyd, at a time when "the pandemic may have caused people to re-evaluate the preciousness of life," Turner suggests.

"As we look at history, the greater rights and civil rights aren't given," notes Dawn DiPrince, History Colorado's COO. "People have to fight for them time and time again in American history. It comes from struggle, and those are the kind of things we're seeing now."

Volunteers came out to clean up the History Colorado Center.
Volunteers came out to clean up the History Colorado Center.
Evan Semón Photography

And while they'd prefer not to see signs of the struggle scrawled on their building at 1200 Broadway, they understand that "some institutions haven't responded to social injustices, and History Colorado represents an institution," says Turner. "The graffiti there were messages that are really important now, and will be important in the future." In fact, History Colorado is even collecting pieces of the graffiti, including an "I Can't Breathe" scrawl left on material covering one window of the building.

When will people be able to see it...from the inside of the History Colorado Center? DiPrince says that History Colorado, its museums around the state and other cultural institutions have been working with the governor's office on a variance that will allow them to reopen, with new public-safety measures adopted, and hope to have an answer soon. When the History Colorado Center does reopen, visitors will be able to see the John Denver Experience, as well as a new display devoted to Colfax Avenue. And coming up later this year is American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, a well-timed traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian that will be paired with programs both virtual and physical.

In the meantime, and into the future, History Colorado will continue to push the online offerings that have exploded over the past two months. "We filled that void by designing a lot of content," says Turner.

Adds DiPrince: "Teachers were really looking to us." They found plenty to see: In May, 5,000 kids took a virtual field trip of the facility...compared to 6,000 who would normally visit the building that month.

Future Coloradans will look to History Colorado for information on everything from the Spanish flu of a century ago to the current pandemic to the unrest sweeping the streets. And they will learn. As Baldwin also writes in "Stranger in the Village":

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."

A version of this piece appeared in the June 4 issue of Westword.

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