Black Coloradans’ fight for civil rights began a century before the national movement

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DENVER — The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s often takes center stage when the nation reflects on the fight for equality in America. But in Colorado, civil rights victories came nearly 100 years before that 1960s movement.

“Civil rights in Colorado goes back to the 1860s,” said author Adrian Miller.

It’s little-known history, but in the 1860s, a group of 100 Black men sent a petition to state leaders demanding Black men receive the right to vote as soon as Colorado was granted statehood.

“That really held up the process and delayed statehood for Colorado. Part of it was because white men who were eligible to vote had objections to statehood for other reasons, but that petition was certainly part of the mix and did not fall on deaf ears. Lawmakers discussed it and eventually African American men did get the right to vote when Colorado became a state in 1876,” said Miller.

Colorado women would not receive that same right until 1893, but that would be three decades before the 19th Amendment gave women across the country the right to vote.

In 1895, Black Coloradans achieved another civil rights victory.

“Our general assembly passed a civil rights law. … Essentially, it said people of color could not be barred from any kind of public accommodations,” Miller said. “Any business open to the public, including restaurants, hotels, inns, transportation, or places of amusement like Elitch Gardens were legally required to serve Black patrons. It was the same framework as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which I think most people know about, so we were well ahead of the game.”

State Rep. Joseph H. Stuart sponsored the legislation.

Stuart was born in Barbados but made his way to Colorado as an attorney.

“He was able to get the bill through the legislature without any opposition,” Miller said. “There were some people who were staunchly against this bill but they decided to abstain.”

The bill became Colorado law in 1895, but due to racism, it was never truly enforced.

“A lot of times, when there was landmark legislation that passed to help the plight of African Americans, usually they didn’t have enough enforcement to really make a difference and that was the case here,” Miller said.

But the biggest blow to Colorado’s civil rights law came from the federal government.

“Just about a year after this law passed, the U.S. Supreme Court passed Plessy v. Ferguson, which sanctioned racial segregation also known as Jim Crow,” Miller said.

Colorado State Rep. Leslie Herod said she is not surprised that the law wasn’t implemented, but is also not surprised that Colorado passed the legislation.

“Colorado has really led the way on some of these issues and while we are still very late on a lot of issues, the people of Colorado have the tendency to stand up fight for their rights and create real change,” Herod said.

Herod said that fight has never stopped.

“The movement for Black lives has been happening for generations. It didn’t just pop up this summer and it’s not something that ended this past summer either. We will continue to fight for change, but we want to make sure that change is implemented in a way that is just and fair,” she said.

Herod said Colorado’s state motto, “Nil sine numine,” means nothing without providence or nothing without God.

For Herod, the motto describes how early Black Coloradans found the strength to start the fight for equality and how Coloradans of color continue it today.