2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Black History is a year-long celebration for McKnight

Published: January 24, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin
Candice McKnight poses in front of a hand-made quilt containing pictures of members of the African-American Historical Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs at the Buena Vista School Wednesday, January 23, 2014. McKnight has built a small museum to preserve the history of African-Americans in Colorado Springs. Mason Trinca, The Gazette

Candice McKnight poses in front of a hand-made quilt containing pictures of members of the African-American Historical Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs at the Buena Vista School Wednesday, January 23, 2014. McKnight has built a small museum to preserve the history of African-Americans in Colorado Springs. Mason Trinca, The Gazette

In an old classroom of the former Buena Vista School, retired nurse Candice McKnight is teaching history to anyone who wanders in.

More important, she’s preserving history, too, of blacks in Colorado Springs.

The classroom, now part of the Westside Community Center, is the rented home to the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs.

invisibleInside the century-old room, McKnight and her society staff have built a library of about 2,000 books about blacks, including John Holley’s classic “The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region,” as well as books about blacks statewide and nationally.

There are also displays honoring black police officers in Colorado Springs, from the turn of the 20th century to current officers.

“There’s a lot to this little place,” McKnight said, as she and society secretary and curator Sarah Sankaouskas showed me around the room.

On one wall is a photo of Ron Stallworth, a former CSPD intelligence officer who made headlines after he became the first black to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1979 he had answered a newspaper ad placed by a Fort Carson soldier who was launching a Colorado Springs chapter of the Klan.

David Duke in a December 2013 photo by Reuters.

David Duke in a December 2013 photo by Reuters.

In phone calls, Stallworth convinced the Klansman he was a white racist and eventually had weekly phone calls with national KKK grand wizard David Duke.

When Klan officials requested a meeting, Stallworth sent a white police colleague in his place. His work uncovered members of the Klan working in the military including two in “sensitive positions” at NORAD and resulted in their removal, according to news stories from the time. Copies of his KKK membership certificate and I.D. card, signed by Duke, are on display.

Another display features black city firefighters. There’s also a display on the region’s Tuskegee airmen — the first black military pilots who trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, starting in 1941.

Retired Air Force Col. James Randall dusts off a model of his F-105 fighter jet that he was shot down in over North Vietnam in this July 2013 photo. Randall, who had to eject from his plane, left behind some of his gear, including his helmet, where he landed. Forty-eight years later, his helmet is being returned to him after it was discovered in a thrift store in Ho Chi Minh City. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

Retired Air Force Col. James Randall dusts off a model of his F-105 fighter jet that he was shot down in over North Vietnam in this July 2013 photo. Randall, who had to eject from his plane, left behind some of his gear, including his helmet, where he landed. Forty-eight years later, his helmet is being returned to him after it was discovered in a thrift store in Ho Chi Minh City. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

The centerpiece of the display is the uniform of James Randall, who joined the famous squadron in 1945 and later was shot down during a 1965 bombing run over enemy territory in North Vietnam.

There are other fascinating museum pieces, like the black dolls on a book shelf and artwork including a painting of the famous Cotton Club, Fannie Mae Duncan’s legendary downtown nightclub and one of the few places blacks could eat, drink and enjoy entertainment including comedian Flip Wilson, musicians such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Muddy Waters and Little Richard.

Fannie Mae Duncan's Cotton Club is seen in a 1970 photo by Norman Sams. Signs on building include "Cottom Club Presents Two Lavish Shows Nightly. Dining - Dancing. Duncan's Cotton Club." Sign in window reads "Barber Shop Yes We're Open." Photo courtesy the Pikes Peak Library District.

Fannie Mae Duncan’s Cotton Club is seen in a 1970 photo by Norman Sams. Signs on building include “Cottom Club Presents Two Lavish Shows Nightly. Dining – Dancing. Duncan’s Cotton Club.” Sign in window reads “Barber Shop Yes We’re Open.” Photo courtesy the Pikes Peak Library District.

The society does much more than maintain the museum. It sponsors lectures on local black history — last May it hosted a talk by Stallworth — and it puts on quarterly workshops to teach people how to conduct genealogical research.

The Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs was profiled in the 1985 edition of El Paso County Heritage, published by Juanita and John Breckenridge.

The Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs was profiled in the 1985 edition of El Paso County Heritage, published by Juanita and John Breckenridge.

The activity represents the society’s dual mission, which came about in 2005 when the Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs, founded in 1981, merged with the genealogical society McKnight had founded in 2000.

McKnight hopes to expand her museum and find it a new home in its own building, and she hopes soon to launch a website for the society.

The Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs was profiled in the 1985 edition of El Paso County Heritage, published by Juanita and John Breckenridge.

The Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs was profiled in the 1985 edition of El Paso County Heritage, published by Juanita and John Breckenridge.

She has ambitious plans for a genealogical research center with computers for folks wanting to trace their family histories.

She also envisions a section dedicated to black nightclubs like Duncan’s Cotton Club and another section devoted to black beauty salons and barber shops in the area and black cowboys and black-owned funeral homes.

But those plans remain on hold until the society finds a way to generate money through a membership drive or grants or donations.

Lack of funding already caused the society to suspend publication of its newsletter.
“We didn’t have the money to sustain it,” McKnight said.

Candice McKnight is surrounded by a display of Colorado Springs' black police officers inside the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs.

Candice McKnight is surrounded by a display of Colorado Springs’ black police officers inside the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs.

And the $280 monthly rent for the classroom often comes out of McKnight’s pocket.

“Most of the time, actually, unless someone gives us a donation,” she conceded.

She needs a grant writer to help her find funding and dues-paying members or perhaps a church group to sponsor the society’s activities.

Despite the financial strain, the society continues to reach out to the public with programs like the “Biographical Treasure Hunt” scheduled 11 a.m. Saturday at the Penrose Library downtown.

“Some people think I’m nuts and say that I’m wasting my time,” McKnight said. “But this is important for our community. We’re trying to keep our history alive. But we do need help.”

IMG_4331IF YOU GO

To celebrate the start of Black History Month in February, the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs will host a “Biographical Treasure Hunt” at 11 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Penrose Library’s Carnegie Reading Room, 20 N. Cascade Ave.

Actors will portray 10 famous black inventors and participants will try to guess their identities by interviewing each. Prizes will be awarded to winners. A $5 donation is requested.

The museum is generally open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, at 1620 W. Bijou St. in the Westside Community Center. It’s only open by appointment on Monday and Friday. Contact the society by email at aahgscs@aol.com or call 385-7920, ext. 202.

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