When fire gutted a 125-year-old house on the edge of downtown Thanksgiving day, more than just an empty building was destroyed.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, the house at 418 E. Cucharras St. was a link in a nationwide chain of “tourist homes” where blacks driving cross-country could find a room in an era of racial segregation and discrimination.
Think of it as a distant cousin of the pre-Civil War underground railroad, a secret network of safehouses created by abolitionists and used by thousands of blacks to escape slavery in the South and reach freedom in northern states and Canada.
This 20th century version catered to blacks who simply wanted to see America but often had no place to sleep or eat because they were denied access to “white-only” hotels and restaurants.
Rather than being “underground,” this network was publicized by a black New York postal employee, Victor Green, who had encountered the racist barriers in his own travels.
In 1936, Green published the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” which was a directory of black-friendly hotels and businesses in the New York City region.
It was immediately popular and he expanded it, reaching out to black postal workers across the country to compile a nationwide list of “tourist homes” or boarding houses, restaurants and clubs, barber shops, beauty salons and garages that welcomed blacks.
The Green Book became well-known nationally, changed names, acquired sponsorship from Esso Standard Oil Co., and existed until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 outlawed racial discrimination by businesses open to the public.
In Colorado Springs, there were just two listings in the 1949 and 1956 guides I found online. One was for the G. Roberts home at 418 E. Cucharras St. and the other was the L.C. Alford house at 509 N. Royer St.
Now, only the Royer Street house remains intact.
The Thanksgiving fire reduced the Roberts house to a charred, dangerous, boarded-up shell surrounded by crime tape and undoubtedly destined for demolition. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
It’s a sad end for the home of George and Mayme Roberts, who opened their doors to many black strangers. Besides the folks who found them in the Green Book, there were chauffeurs, maids, entertainers who had nowhere else to stay when their work brought them to Colorado Springs.
With the help of Matt Mayberry director of the Pioneers Museum, historian Lucy Bell, longtime resident Dottie Spann and others, I was able to piece together the history of the Roberts house.
A Feb. 8, 1960, obituary in the Gazette-Telegraph recounted the life of George Roberts. He was born in Marshall, Texas, in 1876 and spent the last 44 years of his life in Colorado Springs where he was a waiter at the Alamo Hotel, the Antlers Hotel and the Elks Club.
He also served as doorman at The Broadmoor hotel for 16 years.
George, 84, was survived by his wife, Mayme, three sons, Jerry, Leon and Maurice, and daughter Ethel. Mayme died in 1963. Maurice was listed in the City Directory as owner and resident of the home until his death at age 85 in 1996.
Dottie Spann, 78, confirmed the Roberts were, in fact, a family that welcomed blacks needing a home.
“When my mother and father first married, blacks were not allowed in hotels,” Spann said. “So my parents stayed with the Roberts.”
And George was much more accomplished than his obituary would indicate, according to family friend Frank Macon, 90, who enjoyed many Christmas dinners in the Roberts home.
“He used to have a certificate on the wall from the FBI,” Macon said. “It was framed. It said he was a certified fingerprint analyst.”
Why, I wondered, did he spend his life waiting tables and opening doors?
“I asked him about it and he said he could never get a job as a fingerprint analyst,” Macon said.
But his color didn’t stop Colorado Springs police from seeking his help, from time to time, Macon said.
I wondered if something should be done to commemorate the house on Royer or the Roberts house for their roles as safe havens for blacks.
“I think a plaque would be a really good thing,” said Lucy Bell, who is compiling a history of segregation in Colorado Springs for a possible book. “This is another part of the untold story. It’s another thing black people went through. It’s part of the black experience. It’s what they went through when they traveled.”
I agree. Frankly, I can’t imagine what it was like. My family drove to Colorado each summer for vacations. I recall a few times getting concerned at night as we struggled to find a campground or motel with a vacancy.
But we were never turned away for not being white enough.
Stories like these need to be told so our children appreciate how hard things were and so they can understand the enormity of the struggle for racial equality.
A plaque outside the Royer home would be a good start.