In the early 1980s, a small, one room branch of the Denver Public Library was located in the heart of Five Points. This branch library, shared with Denver Human Services, served the neighborhood with nonfiction paperbacks and magazines but wasn’t able to showcase or celebrate the contributions of neighborhood residents, including a rich collection of African Americans who defined the Five Points area we know and love today.
Local residents wanted--and dreamed--of a big branch library. They dreamed of books and research materials as well as programs and services that matched the rich diversity of the Five Points area. But the dream of this sleek new facility would take several years to gather steam.
Fast forward 17 years and plans for a new branch library were set in motion by former Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb and his wife Wilma to not only replace the tiny Five Points Branch Library but also give the community a modern, updated and interactive facility that captured the unique history of the neighborhood.
In 1999, a commission was formed to lead the charge in developing plans for a new Five Points branch library. Charleszine ‘Terry’ Nelson, senior special collections librarian and Gwendolyn Crenshaw, former library manager, joined with community members and the Webbs to lead the charge to collect the history of the historic neighborhood of Five Points. Many of the artifacts and collections sought were already tucked away in dusty basements and the aging memories of the elders in the community.
The commission’s vision was to create a space that preserved and showcased the many contributions and accomplishments of African Americans to the City of Denver and the West. Consultants were hired and a community advisory committee was established to conduct public meetings so that the unique desires and needs of the neighborhood could be shared and recorded. A common theme quickly emerged from these meetings, revealing a clear desire from the community to have a branch library that supported and integrated the neighborhood and acted as a focal point for Five Points.
In February 2002, groundbreaking for the new library took place to start construction on a 40,000 foot circulating library, archive and museum designed by Denver’s OZ Architecture and Harold Massop Associates Architects, P.C. Library staff also began to collect personal and professional papers, publications, church histories, photographs, works of art, oral histories and other memorabilia of distinguished African American from all walks of life supporting the library’s mission: “To serve as an educational and cultural resource for the people of Denver, Colorado and the world, focusing on the history, literature, art, music, religion and politics of African Americans in Colorado and throughout the Rocky Mountain West.”
The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library opened its doors April 2003 and has become what many refer to as the “gateway to historic Five Points and jewel of the community. " It has joined an elite group as one of only five other library institutions including the New York Public Library’s Schomburg branch, that encompasses a circulating collection, archive and museum. The library also has an art/exhibit gallery named for Charles R. and Dorothy E. Cousins, conference and meeting rooms with seating for 100 and 20, public computers and a reference collection that covers a variety of African American topics.
5 Facts About the Blair-Caldwell Library You Might Not Know:
- The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library is named after two African American trailblazers. Omar Blair was a Tuskegee Airmen and the first African American president of the Denver Public School Board. Elvin R. Caldwell was the first African American Denver city councilman in District 8. It is noted he was the first African American to serve on a city council west of the Mississippi River.
- The BCL archive is home to the original manumission papers of the Smith Family. Robert Smith was a former slave from Virginia who hired himself out for 10 years as a barber to buy the freedom of himself, wife and two children in 1834.
- BCL has a large collection of community and national African American newspapers on microfilm, these include: The Colorado Statesman (1909-1940), Afro-American (Baltimore) 1893-1988, Chicago Defender 1956-1969 and the New York Amsterdam News (1962-2000).
- The archive collection of John Mosely has 2 unique yearbooks that range from 1941-1945 of Black Airmen commonly referred to as Tuskegee Airmen. This collection also includes his flight jacket, a replica of the Red Tail plane he flew in WWII and a replica of the highway signage that honors the Tuskegee Airmen in Colorado Springs on highway I-25 South.
- The art inside and outside of the library is part of what makes us so special. The “Freedom’s Legacy” Mural located over the circulation desk on the first floor features 34 national and local figures from the civil right movement painted by Kenyan artist Yvonne Munde. On each side of the building two 15-foot bronze and mosaic reliefs of a African American man and woman represent the noble strength, bearing and pioneering spirit of African American people in the West designed by sculptor Thomas Jay Warren.
The mini tour provides a quick journey through history, exploring the contributions of African Americans to the West. This is but a small sample of the vibrant and exciting history of Five Points. Visit us in person to finish the story and learn more about the influential African Americans that settled in Five Points and Denver.
Stop in and experience an unique and rich treasure of the community. Access the knowledge of our three librarians, explore the personal and professional papers, artifacts, photos, scrapbooks, and display cases of great African American individuals and organizations that helped shape the West.