Brandon Bornes remembers his first reaction to his hometown’s museum dedicated to Black residents who came before him.
“Just the way it was laid out, and how it’s just like this raw history,” he says. “A lot of museums have barriers, and you can’t touch anything. You can touch this history.”
You can touch, for example, the Air Force uniform of one of Colorado Springs’ most beloved sons: James Randall, the fighter pilot remembered as a hero upon his death in 2019. You can touch the fire engine model of Andrew Collins, honored here as the city’s first Black firefighter who attained a pension.
You can flip through books, even check out some of the 2,000 here. One is “The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region,” the definitive account by historian John Stokes Holley.
“It’s a unique space,” Bornes says, “and not many people know about it.”
It hides in a corner room of the Westside Community Center. It started 12 years ago as a base for the African American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs. Bornes is a board member of the organization, which has a stated mission “to ensure that African Americans are included as an integral part of the history of the Pikes Peak region and our nation.”
Some of the nation’s most iconic Black influencers are celebrated here. As are some of this region’s, including Fannie Mae Duncan, whose story is well-known — the owner of an integrated jazz club now enshrined in bronze near the club’s former place along Cascade Avenue.
But lesser-known stories are also told at the museum. Here are some:
‘The General’s Man’
Stokes Holley wrote of George Motley as El Paso County’s “first invisible person.”
Motley was a teenage runaway slave who joined Gen. William Palmer’s Union regiment during the Civil War. The young man stayed by the general’s side through the 1860s, assigned as cook and orderly on rugged missions scouting railway lines in the West. And Motley remained “the General’s Man,” Stokes Holley writes, as Palmer established Colorado Springs in 1871 and made his home in Glen Eyrie.
Stokes Holley writes of Motley: “He had great love and respect for the general, who had become something of a father to him ever since their early cavalry days.”
The historian counts Motley as the city’s first mailman.
But the popular record regularly omits Motley, Stokes Holley writes. “This is not unusual, however, as servants are seldom treated as important figures in the lives of the prominent.”
The Springs’ first Black public school principal tells her story in “The Gang of One: The Life of Vera Gang Scott.”
She begins with her childhood struggles in 1917 Texas, where segregation kept her in a “poor school” and away from a library she admired. Those struggles continued as she went on to study to be a social worker. “I always thought a school should be like a song from my childhood,” she remarks. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight ...”
She saw change as a teacher in the Springs in the 1960s. But she remembers one boy not in class during her first week. He was hiding in the bathroom, she recounts: “He said, ‘My momma told me not to go to class if that new Negro woman was my teacher.’”
It was decided in 1997 to name a new elementary school after her. Vera Gang Scott died in 2001, but not before reflecting: “The happiness I feel at the naming of this school will ring in my heart and soul all of my days.”
In the 1940s, Colorado Springs’ Black baseball players couldn’t hope to join the white teams of the city league. So, in 1945, they banded together as the Brown Bombers, named for Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion boxer at the time.
Players faced the ridicule of white crowds. They were unwelcome at motels on the road. They wore mismatched uniforms, swung with bats taped and nailed together and got by with makeshift balls and gloves.
For whatever they lacked, the Bombers had no shortage of desire.
“We wanted to win,” one of them, Joe Morgan, recalled in a Colorado Country Life article kept at the museum. “And, we wanted to show the white guys that we were just as good or better, because we were not allowed on their team.”
This 2009 article came decades after proper recognition skipped the team.
In 1949, the Bombers overcame the squad from Camp Carson to win the city title. The traditional victory banquet was called off, the Bombers later recalled — as it was again the next year when they repeated as champs.
In 2014, the team was inducted into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame.
A boy’s journey
One of the Bombers was Oliver Bell, whose widow, Lucy Bell, traces his life in “Coming Up: A Boy’s Adventures in 1940s Colorado Springs.” It serves as a tribute not only to him, but to all boys of color during that divided time.
The book paints the picture with segregated movie theaters; with separate bathrooms and drinking fountains; with refused service at restaurants; with a 1940 newspaper clip announcing Monument Valley Park’s pool open for Black residents on Wednesdays only.
Lucy Bell writes of the city’s founding father fostering a good working environment for Black residents; Palmer was a noted abolitionist. Bell reflects on Oliver feeling lucky to shine shoes, “and he was,” she writes, “because by the time he was born in 1933, many Black jobs that General Palmer supported had disappeared.”
Young Oliver also collected trash and worked as an orderly at the old Cragmor Sanatorium and as a porter on a train. It was hard making a living.
“But Black people didn’t give up,” Bell writes. “They kept on keeping on and making a way where there was no way.”
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Oliver went on to college and came back to the Springs to teach physical education for 30 years.
Badge of honor
No man from the Springs Police Department has achieved such fame as Ron Stallworth. He was the department’s first Black detective and infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the focus of a 2018 Oscar-nominated film. Here at the museum, sharing wall space with Stallworth is Horace Shelby.
Shelby is pictured with a timeline placing him on duty from 1887 to 1906. He is regarded as the city’s first Black policeman. Curiously, Shelby’s tin badge turned up at an antique shop in Kansas City, Mo. It was sold for $17.50, according to a Gazette Telegraph article from 1989.
The owner phoned the badge’s home department for more information, the report says. Sgt. Bob Kean, who arranged for the badge’s return, is quoted as saying: “Its value cannot be determined because of the historical significance behind it.”
The caller, a police aficionado, reportedly accepted a patrol badge in return.