African American News and Genealogy

This site was developed to provide you with news that relates to African American Genealogy, History and News. Please feel free to forward this link to others. I hope you enjoy this site and good luck with your research! Cheers, Kenyatta D. Berry Managing Director

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Denver cemetery's data "very valuable" to state

Genealogists unearth roots of 5,000 blacks By Sheba R. Wheeler , Denver Post Staff Denver's oldest cemetery has yielded a historical gold mine for genealogists who now have access to important information about the early history of African-Americans in Colorado. More than 5,000 previously unresearched burial records of blacks who lived and died in the area in the late 1800s have been cataloged by a local genealogy group. Researchers hope the data will paint a more complete picture of the black community at the time, as well as provide clues of lineage for blacks nationwide. The Riverside Cemetery burial cards might be the only vital records widely available for blacks who lived in Colorado at that time, the only recorded proof that a person existed, says Tony Burroughs, an adjunct professor of genealogy at Chicago State University and author of "Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African-American Family Tree." "You hear too often that no records exist on blacks," Burroughs said. "This is a prime example of a great body of records that does. The fact that they have now been made available is one of the reasons why this is so significant." It took a year for a half-dozen members of the Black Genealogy Search Group of Denver to review more than 86,000 burial cards dating from 1876 and kept in file cabinets in the cemetery's administrative office in Denver. Information from index cards identifying individuals as "Colored, Negro, Black or African-American" - including name, age, residence, employment and next of kin - was converted to a single database. A printed version is available for research in the Denver Public Library's genealogy department. The group also is working with the Fairmount Heritage Foundation to make the information available online. "It's a very valuable record because there really aren't any good overviews of blacks in Colorado, or even of blacks in Denver," says local historian Tom Noel. "There are selected studies of Five Points ... but nothing that spans the breadth of the entire community." Basic identifying documents are kept at cemeteries and funeral homes across the nation. Vital records such as birth, marriage and death certificates are available, too, but such documents are sometimes hard to research because they aren't transcribed, complete or readily accessible. City's oldest cemetery Members of the Denver genealogy search group took it upon themselves to see what clues the city's oldest cemetery had to offer. Constructed on what was then prime property on the east bank of the South Platte River, Riverside was the city's first well-organized cemetery, a picturesque beauty that served the community as a park as well as a resting place for the dead. Previously, residents were buried at Denver City Cemetery, now Cheesman Park, but when the area became an eyesore because of neglect, Riverside was founded. Its landscaped lawns, flowers, trees and curved lanes were patterned after Mount Auburn Cemetery, near Boston. In the 1890s, Riverside was swallowed by developments, including the Burlington Railroad line, which led to the industrial district that sprang up around the cemetery. During the group's research, names of recognized pioneering legends resurfaced, including Barney Ford, an escaped slave who became a wealthy entrepreneur and civil rights leader noted for securing the black man's right to vote in Colorado. Another was Lewis Price, a slave who fought in the Civil War before coming West, and who founded and published the Denver Star, the first black newspaper west of the Missouri River. "Aunt" Clara Brown, a freed slave who grubstaked miners, established the first laundry in Central City and helped relocate newly freed slaves to the state. Elizabeth Piper Ensley, who taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., with her husband before moving to Colorado about 1890, became Denver's leading African-American suffragist, club leader and political activist. But perhaps the greatest find concerns the attention to detail given to everyday African-Americans whose experiences weren't noted in history books. The railroad workers and bricklayers. The homeless and destitute. The doctors and ministers of an active middle class. Freed blacks, largely migrants from Queens, N.Y., and New Bedford, Mass., sought out fresh starts on the untested Western frontier. It's these little-known ancestors that members of the Denver genealogy group want descendants nationwide to know about. "It's always fun to read about the famous people, but it's the school masters, bricklayers, seamstresses and the like whose stories are more common to all of us," says Diane O'Connor, executive director of the National Genealogical Society, based in Virginia. "It shows how everyone contributes to this great story of American history." "Colorblind Colorado" The information from the cards also sheds lights on Colorado's attitude toward minorities at the turn of the century. "It's amazing how colorblind Colorado was at that time," says genealogical specialist James K. Jeffrey of the Denver Public Library. "That reality is reflected in how people lived and how they were buried." In other regions during the late 1800s, African-Americans were often seen as housekeepers or farmers. But blacks in Colorado were part of a solid, professional middle-class. Cemeteries often segregated the dead. At Fairmount Cemetery, established in 1890, ethnic groups were buried in specified sections, while some Crown Hill cemeteries had racial covenants that did not allow persons of color to be buried there until after passage of the Civil Rights Act. But at Riverside, blacks were buried beside whites, a display of equality that continued until the Ku Klux Klan rose to power during the 1920s. "It's important for the entire community to recognize that something was (experienced) for a few generations that we have been fighting for ever since the 1960s," Jeffrey says. "We are still trying to rekindle that whole community spirit of a colorblind culture." Denver genealogy group member Monyett Ellington, 70, wants others to feel the same pride she felt when she discovered an ancestor had contributed to Denver society. Her family's oral history included the tale of "Uncle Fonz," a bricklayer said to have accompanied a related cousin to and from school. Ellington sifted out kernels of truth from the memories of family members, cemetery staff and burial records to discover that Alphonso Choice, who died in 1938 at age 65, was Ellington's great- aunt's uncle. Choice was a hod carrier who transported loads of bricks and mortar to build Cole Middle School and the Rossonian Hotel. "It is true what one genealogist once told me about ancestral history research. He said you'll find some in-laws and some outlaws. But he also guaranteed me that I would find pride," Ellington says. Looking for more clues In January, the group intends to find more clues about people like Choice when they index names pulled from copies of insurance policies and mortgage documents from the American Woodmen insurance company. The company served turn-of-the-century black communities in Colorado, Kansas and other states west of the Mississippi. "There's an African proverb that says, 'Until the lion learns to write, his story will not be told,"' says Ellington, who came up with the research idea. "I'm afraid that unless we do something, much of our African-American history won't be recorded either." To contact the Western History/ Genealogy Department at the Denver Public Library, call 720-865-1821. To contact the Fairmount Heritage Foundation, call 303-322-3895. Staff writer Sheba R. Wheeler can be reached at 303-820-1283 or


Post a Comment

<< Home