Denver’s Historic African-American Community in Photographs
This blog post was written by Laurier Cress, a University of Denver student who worked on a practicum project this fall in the Western History and Genealogy department at the Denver Public Library:
As an intern from the University of Denver I had the opportunity to work with Denver Public Library’s Western History and Genealogy Department on their most important collection of photographs pertaining to the history of Denver’s African American community. The Burnis McCloud collection captures various aspects of African American life from the 1940s through the 1980s. Scenes depict everyday life and elite social circles within the Black community. My task as one of two interns assigned to this collection during Fall 2020 was to digitize a small segment of this massive collection of 100,000 photographs.
While sorting through McCloud’s collection, I found he did an excellent job making notations on the back of each photograph. Written on the back of each photograph is the event at which it was taken and the name of each subject (if known). The words written on the back of one image stood out to me. It read, “Dwight, Ed (1st black selected astronaut – sculptor)”. On the front side of the image I saw Dwight standing on the far-right side, clapping and looking directly at civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. My initial thought was, “Who is this man and why have I never heard of him before?”.
To my knowledge, the first African American astronaut was Guion Bluford. My curiosity led me down a rabbit hole into trying to find as much information as possible on Dwight and his life. With the exception of a small Wikipedia page and a 2019 interview conducted by the New York Times, there wasn’t much information on Dwight. I quickly learned that Dwight was the first African American selected for NASA’s astronaut training program but due to racial politics of the time, he was never selected to go into space.
Being part of the astronaut training program thrust Dwight and his family into the spotlight. He was an inspiration to many in the Black community but a threat to those who saw Dwight as the personification of an integrated NASA. Dwight decided to leave the Air Force due to racial politics and went on to become one of the most successful sculptors of the 20th century. My research led me to learn that Dwight, at 87-years-old, was still sculpting in his Denver art studio. From that moment, I decided I had to attempt to contact him. As a fellow African American sculptor and future DU alumni, I felt a connection to him and his life.
After listening to a couple of short interviews of Dwight, I recognized his voice the moment he answered my call. To be completely transparent, I was immediately nervous. I was going to talk to a historical figure who has made major contributions to the advancement of African Americans. He is also one of few people still alive from the period of McCloud’s collection.
Dwight was very receptive to speaking with me regarding his life story. At 87 years old, he still maintains a busy schedule and continues sculpting in his studio. However, he scheduled a time for me to interview him. When the day came to interview, I had a set list of questions I wanted to ask him but I quickly learned that Dwight was very passionate when talking about his fascinating life. Although I was not able to ask him all of the questions I wanted to, I learned invaluable information from Dwight about what the Black community was like in Denver from the 1950 through the 1970s.
I told Dwight that I was compelled to speak with him due to the photograph I came across in the Burnis McCloud collection. I asked him if he knew the photographer well. He told me he and McCloud weren’t close friends but he knew of him and his photography. Everyone respected McCloud within the Black community. Back then, the community was even smaller in Denver than it is today. When Dwight first moved to Denver in 1951, there were only 6,000 African American residents and most lived in Park Hill. Dwight went on to say,
“This is because we were restricted on where we could live. Blacks couldn’t live East of York (York Street). There was a lot of fear mongering by the real estate people to prevent us from moving outside this area. We were only allowed to move into other areas when Whites moved out, allowing Blacks to move in. Two in every five Black citizens in Denver worked in education. Two in every five worked for the federal government. The one in every five owned businesses. There weren’t a lot of Black business owners in Denver at this time. McCloud was in the middle of all of this.”
The origins of residential segregation in Denver began in 1925, with the assistance of the Ku Klux Klan and the local and federal government. By 1938, banks practiced redlining (the refusal of granting loans to a specific demographic or within a specific area) with the federal government’s blessing. White residents could take legal action against Black homeowners if they purchased a home within an all White community. Restrictive covenants were included in deeds to control who could purchase homes in areas deemed for Whites only. White homeowners would also sign legally binding contracts, agreeing not to sell or rent to African Americans. These actions were supported by the courts, White citizens, and city developers. These covenants laid the foundation for residential zoning and real estate policies that still have an impact on Denver today. Although the Supreme Court declared race-based covenants illegal in the early 1950s, African American residents were still subjected to racial segregation in real estate.
I told Dwight since I started working with the McCloud collection, I was really interested in learning more about the African American community in Denver during McCloud’s active years. I told Dwight that whenever my mother talks about what life was like for Black folks back in the day, she always tells me it was a tight-knit community and that Black folks looked out for one another and tried to uplift each other. I asked him if he felt supported by the Black community when he moved to Denver.
Dwight told me he arrived in 1951 to go to the Air Force’s testing facility to qualify for piloting. Upon his arrival, he received so much support from the Black community. When he arrived in Denver, he had a reputation as the first Black astronaut. Due to his reputation, he had already earned the respect of the community prior to his arrival. There were some people within the community that were worried he wanted to seek political gain but he wasn’t interested in political positions. Once Dwight settled down in Denver, he began pursuing a variety of career paths. He went on to say,
“I went on to work for IBM Corporation. IBM was grooming me to become the first Black vice president of IBM but I was tired of being the first Black this and the first Black that. I left IBM and started opening private businesses- a chain of restaurants, an aviation center at Denver Airport, an interior decoration firm, and a construction company.”
I also wanted to learn a little bit more about Dwight’s art and how he transitioned from aeronautical engineering to sculpture. Dwight told me he was 42 years old when he decided to pursue art. He started creating abstract art for lobbies with his interior decorating firm. It wasn’t until he connected with Lieutenant Governor George Brown that he began creating the sculptures and memorials he is known for today. When Dwight moved to Denver, he formed a friendship with Brown. One day, Brown asked him to create an African American memorial piece for the State Capitol Building. Dwight told me he turned Brown down at first. He wanted nothing to do with it but Brown encouraged him to pursue this path. He saw something in Dwight. He went on to say,
“At this time, I was successful and living a cushy life. I had several sports cars, airplanes, and made good money. I had a Porsche. But George told me to stop living this lifestyle. He told me I was meant to be more. I was meant to be the most famous Black sculptor in the United States. George asked me, ‘Can you find anything a Black person has made in a park, museum, or a gallery?’ He asked me, ‘Do you know who Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman is?’”
When Dwight couldn’t answer him, Brown flipped out. Brown jumped out of his seat and told Dwight, “You are walking around here talking about you’re the first Black astronaut and you don’t know who these people are or what they did?” Dwight thought about what Brown told him for the next several months. He went to several major cities and took 4,300 photos in the places he visited. When he returned to Denver, he found that none of the art in the photographs he took were created by or for Black people. Dwight said,
“I was so angry. George told me to go to the Denver Public Library and open a book to learn how to sculpt. From that moment, I sold all my companies and started learning how to sculpt.”
Dwight would go on to earn an M.F.A. in sculpture from the University of Denver (DU) in 1977. While working on his degree, he worked as the head of DU’s sculpture department and taught classes to undergraduate art students.
During my conversation with Dwight, I confessed to him that I had never heard of him before I began working with the Burnis McCloud collection. After uncovering as much information about Dwight’s life as I could, I quickly learned that Dwight’s accomplishments and contributions towards the advancement of the African American community were compressed into a small footnote in history.
Dwight’s story had nearly been forgotten until the New York Times interview in 2019. This is a far cry from the many magazines Dwight was featured in during his time in the astronaut training program. During his interview with the New York Times, Dwight was able to give voice to his experience in the astronaut training program and the racism he faced from his peers and superiors. Although Dwight excelled in the space program, NASA was not ready to integrate. He was told several times that it was too early for a Black man to do anything of this magnitude.
Today, Dwight still sculpts and operates a metal casting foundry in his Denver art studio. He has created a total of 129 memorials and over 18,000 art pieces in his lifetime that can be seen throughout the United States and abroad.
Awesome work. Ed Dwight has a hell of a story - he clearly deserves this spotlight!
Thank you Julia for your comment! And we agree, Ed Dwight does deserve the spotlight. We're glad you enjoyed the story.
This is a very inspiring and informative article about a man that deserves so much more attention and exposure. Ed Dwight is worthy of a prominent place in American history.
I agree W.J. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.
Let me try to correct some misinformation....
In the early part of this article it says "...in 1951 there were only 6,000 African American residents and most lived in Park Hill." Then it quotes Dwight, saying "Blacks couldn't live East of York (York Street)."
These two statements are in conflict - Park Hill is entirely east of York Street! Indeed, when I moved to Denver in 1976, Park Hill had the reputation as an integrated community, and many in Denver were proud of that and the fact that Denver didn't have the slums that other big cities had.
It would be more accurate to mention the Whittier or Five Points neighborhoods, but even this doesn't really explain the areas that were redlined. I often find that talk of redlining is more concept than specifics. More research needed on this!
I sent Laurier Cress your comments and she responded. It took awhile, but here is her response: "When I wrote the post I used the interactive map here: https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=13/39.738/-105.016&city=denver-co which I think the customer may find more beneficial.
I think its important to highlight that 6,000 African American residents residing in Park Hill does not signify that it was easy for African American residents to gain access to this residential area. I believe this was the message that Mr. Dwight was trying to convey when he shared this information with me. I recommend checking out this interactive map that highlights redlining throughout the U.S. You can zone in on Denver and conduct a search on the Park Hill area specifically. Not only does it provide stats on its inhabitants but it also includes historic documents that support the stats they provide."
Thanks for your comments,
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