Steele City: Pueblo civil rights icon Ruth Steele dead at 85, leaving behind a ‘legacy of love’

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Coretta Scott King (left) presents Ruth Steele and the Pueblo Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission with The Making of the King Holiday Award on Jan. 8, 1996.

Pueblo humanitarian Ruth Steele, who spent her entire life advocating for civil rights and the preservation of Black history, died Jan. 17 from stomach cancer at the age of 85.

Steele, a founder of the Pueblo Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission, was best known for her efforts to bring the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday to Pueblo in the 1980s and her preservation of the historic Lincoln Home — a former orphanage and senior home for Pueblo’s Black population that Steele later transformed into the Pueblo Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission and Cultural Center and Museum.

Her death came one day after the holiday commission’s annual march through Pueblo to commemorate King’s life, which Steele led for more than three decades, and one day prior to the federal MLK holiday.

Ruth Steele

Even as she laid in a hospital bed fighting for her life, Steele didn’t miss the celebration. She took part the only way that she could, listening to the march and program over the telephone.

MORE: Community building emphasized at Pueblo’s MLK service

“She was able to be with us when we were doing our march on Saturday morning and then was able to listen through the entire ceremony we did where we honored Dr. King but we also honored her,” said Ray Brown, current president of the Pueblo Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission and a mentee of Steele’s.

“So she still didn’t miss it this year, she was with us.”

Early life and the MLK holiday

Steele was born Aug. 9, 1935, in Texas but was brought to Colorado when she was just two weeks old. She grew up in Pueblo and was raised by her grandmother.

Steele was a gifted student who skipped several grades and graduated from Centennial High School at the age of 15. She attended Pueblo Junior College, was a member of the University of Colorado paraprofessional legal class and was accepted into several law schools.

But rather than pursuing a career in law, Steele decided to stay in Colorado to work on the original committee to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday as the legislative assistant to state representatives Wilma Webb and Arie Parks Taylor. 

In 1983, Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday, but when it was signed into law by President Ronald Regan, there was a provision that said the holiday would not take effect for three years.

For Steele, that was too long to wait.

“Ruth Steele went back to Pueblo and while there, she went on ahead and was able to put together the first ever Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. program that was held in the United States,” said Vern Howard, chair commissioner for the Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission, the parent organization of the Pueblo group.

“Mrs. Coretta Scott King (King’s wife) awarded Dr. Steele with a Dr. King Humanitarian Award for her efforts. So while the rest of us have been celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day for 36 years, she was doing it for 39.”

Previous coverage:Steele leads stroll for 2017 MLK day

Many details about the early days of Steele’s advocacy, prior to her work on the MLK holiday, are hard to pin down, Brown said, but feature several pivotal moments in Black history as well as prominent figures in the civil rights movement.

The myths surrounding the legendary Steele include acquaintances like Harry Belafonte and the late Georgia Senator John Lewis.

She met King and took part in the historic march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965.

“She also said she had been one of the ladies sent to Washington D.C. to get set up for the (March on Washington in 1963),” Brown said.

“She always counted down the number of people that were involved in the civil rights movement and she always included herself in those efforts.”

Steele held onto the red dress and hat she wore to those marches. They were two of her prized possessions for the rest of her life.

Museum chief executive director Ruth Steele, photographed on the steps of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center and Museum in Pueblo, Colorado. The photo was taken in September 2015, one year before the museum, housed in a onetime orphanage, was closed and its artifacts placed in storage

The Lincoln Home

In the 1990s, Steele identified a new passion project in the Lincoln Home, which formerly served as the Pueblo Colored Orphanage and Old Folks Home.

The property features two adjoined buildings at 2713-2715 Grand Avenue, and between 1963 and 1985, it cycled through several landlords.

The buildings fell into a state of disrepair from neglect, so Steele sought to convert the historic property into a cultural center and museum to honor King and Pueblo’s Black history.

First, she needed the building.

One of Steele’s mottos, which she’d often repeat, was that her mission was to “respect, preserve, protect and interpret (African Americans’) rich heritage.”

With that mission always in mind, she was tenacious when she set her mind on a project.

Terry Nelson, the vice chair commissioner for the state holiday commission, referred to her as “lovingly persistent.”

“She hounded E.M. Christmas (the property owner) for the building and the property,” Brown said with a laugh.

“The building was dilapidated, it was starting to fall down, so she would go back to him and back to him and finally he acquiesced and said, ‘You can have the damn building.’”

MORE: Steele, McCulley, receive MLK lifetime achievement awards

It took her about three years, but she eventually convinced Christmas to donate the property for $1.

“That’s Ruth,” Brown said.

“She was definitely lovingly persistent. She didn’t give up and she never gave in. If she wanted it she just kept driving for it.”

Another of Steele’s crowning achievements involved a one-of-a-kind statue that was previously located in Denver’s City Park.

The statue depicts King with Emett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. It is believed to be the only statue of its kind.

“Once she was able to get the Lincoln Home turned into a museum I think she went back to (Denver) Mayor Wellington Webb and, probably, persistently with love, hinted she would really like to have that statue,” Brown said.

“Over time, Webb agreed and there was quite an effort to physically move the statue from Denver to Pueblo and it was given to the Pueblo Martin Luther King Holiday Commission and of course, Ruth Steele.”

In 1997, the Lincoln Home was officially placed on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties. The heritage center closed in 2016 and the property is now home to Friendly Harbor, a mental health service center.

But the holiday commission continues to serve Pueblo and Southern Colorado as a source of black history.

Ruth Steele in 1994

Life and legacy

Asked about Steele’s life and legacy, Howard, of the state holiday commission, recalled one of King’s favorite hymns, which he first heard in a Denver Baptist church in 1956, that was also one of Steele’s favorites.

The hymn, written in 1945 by Alma Androzzo, includes the lyrics:

“If I can help somebody as I pass along,

If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song.

If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,

Then my living will not be in vain.”

“She identified, truly, with Dr. King’s favorite song,” Howard said.

“’If I can help somebody then my living shall not be in vain,’ — Dr. Steele so identified herself with that.”

For Steele, the work was never done.

Around the year 2000, Howard said, the Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission disbanded and reformed as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission.

The commission sought to recruit Steele and bring the Pueblo commission under the umbrella of the new state commission, but she was notoriously hard to get ahold of — she didn’t own a computer and seldom carried a cellphone.

After a bit of searching for Steele, Howard said the commission heard she had passed away, so they gave up on trying to reach her. But one day, they got a call from a Puebloan who wanted to recommend Steele for an honorary award.

Howard called the woman and told her he was under the impression Steele had passed.

“And she said, “Ruth ain’t dead unless she just died! I just got off the phone with her!” Howard recalled with a full-belly chuckle.

“So she gave me the phone number and we called Dr. Steele.”

Howard called his old friend Steele and told her who was calling. They exchanged pleasantries and Howard said, “Dr. Steele, you’re not dead!”

“And she said, ‘Well, no I don’t think I am!’ … And she laughed about it and said, ‘I’m not dead yet! I’ve got a whole lot more work to do before I die.”

Steele is best known locally for her work preserving black history and civil rights, but her outreach spanned well beyond any single cause.

Howard said Steele was a humanitarian, in every sense of the word.

“You can find all the work she did for orphans, the work she did for seniors and for the unhoused. It didn’t matter what race, color or creed that you were. People would go to her house around the corner from the Dr. King center there and knock on her door at all hours of the night because they’d be hungry and she’d feed them,” Howard said.

She also was immensely proud of her work with the Weisbrod Aircraft Museum, where she and Brown developed an exhibit about the Tuskegee Airmen that later evolved into a photographical documentation of Black Americans from the American Revolutionary War through Vietnam.

Steele was also the matriarch of her family. She had two sons, Anthony Woodfork, who was gravely injured serving in Vietnam and died after returning to the U.S., and Dannie Woodfork, who lives with his family in Texas. She was a grandmother to 16 and had 13 great-grandkids.

“My mother had me when she was 18 years old, so we grew up together, as children,” Dannie Woodfork said.

“She played with me, we did everything together — played baseball, climbed trees, went huntin’, fishin’, but in the end, she was the boss when it came nighttime.”

What little Steele had, Woodfork said, she gave to her children.

“My momma worked hard and even though she didn’t have nothin’ but some nickels and dimes, she’d bring that home to us,” he said.

“Whatever little tips she could get she would bring to us. She loved us and she did the best she could.”

Over the years, Steele was recognized several times for her advocacy work.

She was awarded the honorable Wilma J. Webb Founders Award, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Business Social Responsibility Trailblazer award — for which she was unanimously chosen — the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award and several others.

She was recognized in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 18, 2003, by former Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis and in 2015 received an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Public Service from the Denver Institute of Urban Studies.

The state holiday commission, Howard said, also has a scholarship in Steele’s name. Rather than flowers, Woodfork said his mother’s wishes were for people to donate to the scholarship fund.

“She was extremely passionate about funding that scholarship,” Howard said.

“So she was asking people to go to the (state holiday commission) website and donate.”

In late 2020, Steele was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer. By the time doctors caught it, there was little they could do.

But even in death, Steele’s important work continues.

“Her legacy is one of love. Her legacy will be a rich one,” Howard said.

“Although she has succumbed and gone on, her memories, her work, will never die. The work that she’s done and how she’s done it, the holiday she’s helped to build, goes on. She really was a phenomenal woman.”

“I think she’s happy to know we’re continuing the work,” Brown said.

“That’s probably the thing she’ll look down and say to me, ‘Hey, get back out there! We’ve got things we need to do.’”

Chieftain reporter Zach Hillstrom can be reached at zhillstrom@gannett.com or twitter.com/ZachHillstrom