Welcome to the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, a branch of the Denver Public Library. Omar D. Blair and Elvin R. Caldwell are the two shared namesakes of the Blair-Caldwell Library. Located in the historic neighborhood of Five Points and the only library of its kind between Detroit and Oakland, it focuses on the history, culture, literature, art, music, religion and politics of African Americans in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West. The Library has three spacious levels, each with its own unique purpose. Level 1 you will find full-services with access to a variety of circulating materials, Level 2 you will find the archives and research room, items on this floor are non-circulating but available for research and Level 3 is the Western Legacies Museum and Exhibit Space. The museum highlights the historic Five Points neighborhood, African Americans in early Denver (including the city’s earliest arrivals), the Black West, and the African American leadership corridor and gallery. A rotating art gallery featuring local artists and traveling exhibits also share space with the museum.
Join us as we take a quick journey through history and explore the contributions of African Americans to the West.
You may be surprised that it wasn’t gold or mines or railroads that introduced Africans to the American West. Meet Esteban, a North African slave from Morocco who survived a shipwreck and came to “New Spain” in the 1500s as part of an expedition led by Spanish noblemen.
Fast forward 300 years after Esteban’s travels, hundreds of people of African descent arrived in the southwestern United States. They settled throughout the Southwest and participated in the establishment of cites such as Santa Fe, Los Angeles, El Paso and San Francisco in search of physical, political and economic freedom.
The family history of Robert and Sarah Smith shows how ordinary African Americans accomplished extraordinary things. Several generations of the Smith family settled across an expanding and changing United States, but their story began with Robert and Sarah when they were born as slaves in 1799 on the Mansfield plantation in Virginia. A year after Robert and Sarah were married, Sarah was sold to a plantation owner on the other side of Virginia. For the next 10 years Robert hired himself out as a barber to gain money to purchase his freedom and the freedom of Sarah and their two children. Robert Smith’s dream of freedom was realized when he was granted manumission papers on March 12, 1834, which set him entirely free from slavery. Robert and his family left Virginia moving several times searching for a peaceful place to settle and raise a family. The Smiths eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio – a free state. Their son, Robert O. Smith moved to Denver and continued in the barber trade. He purchased a house in Five Points and a barbershop in Capital Hill, which he opened and operated at 1449 Ogden Street.
How did Denver’s Five Points neighborhood evolve from a wealthy “streetcar suburb” to a vibrant, historic hub of African American art, music, business and culture? At the turn of the last century, the Five Points area was an important industrial, commercial and service area for Denver. Along the Platt River, to the north of the Five Points neighborhood, African Americans found work in industrial plants and rail yards that supported the mining, agricultural, and cattle industries. Five Points became largely African American primarily for two reasons: 1) Employment opportunities and 2) Restrictive covenants and segregation prevented them from living in Denver, so as more and more African Americans moved into the Five Points neighborhood, whites moved out. Because African Americans weren’t allowed to shop, play or live in other parts of Denver they created a “city within a city” in Five Points. Businesses and entertainment venues, grocery stores, retail shops, restaurants, bars, beauty and barbershops, cleaners and shoe repair shops lined Welton Street. Five Points became self-sufficient by providing the goods and services that African Americans couldn’t find elsewhere.
This is but a small sample of the vibrant and exciting history of Five Points. Stop in anytime to browse the library and the museum to finish the story of African Americans settling in Five Points and Denver.
Library Address: 2401 Welton St., Denver, CO 80205