Following the police killing of George Floyd and the protests in Colorado and across the world, State Representative Leslie Herod proposed sweeping police reforms, which rapidly passed out of the state legislature. That is important legislation worth our attention. Here, though, I want to take a step back and look at the history of black legislators in Colorado, because they didn’t always play a prominent role in Colorado politics. The fact that we now take black elected officials for granted signals the moral progress our state has made over the decades.
Herod also serves as chair of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado. She writes about the caucus, “We stand on the shoulder of giants. Since Colorado’s founding, over 35 African Americans have served in either the State House of Representatives or the State Senate, dating back to 1897. We were the first state in the nation to have both an African American Speaker of the House and President of the Senate at the same time. And in 2017, for the first time in Colorado History, the BDLC had two members begin serving in the Senate together and six members serving together in the House.”
Let’s refresh a bit of history. The Civil War lasted from 1861 into 1865, and Colorado gained statehood in 1876 (hence the “Centennial State”). Colorado became a territory in 1861. And, as prominent legislator Jerry Kopel reviews, Colorado voters approved statehood in 1865. So early state history was very much bound up with the aftermath of the Civil War.
The much-missed columnist Ed Quillen takes the story from there. “Colorado tried again in 1865 [after voters previously rejected statehood], just after the Territorial Legislature amended the voting laws to disenfranchise African-Americans. On March 13, 1866, the U.S. Senate rejected Colorado statehood, partly on that account.” Two prominent black men, William Hardin and Barney Ford, an escaped slave, were among those who opposed statehood, Quillen notes. President Andrew Johnson also opposed Colorado’s statehood in 1866, partly because of the enfranchisement issue.
“Colorado amended its laws to allow black suffrage in 1867,” Quillen notes. He continues, “Our current state constitution, drafted in 1875, outlaws racial discrimination.” Colorado became a state the next year under President Ulysses S. Grant.
The first record I found of a black Colorado legislator is for John T. Gunnell, apparently elected in 1880. I didn’t find much information about him.
I did, however, find a viciously racist attack on Gunnell published by the Leadville Democrat on February 24, 1881. The paper quotes, and even agrees with, a line from the South Arkansas Miner, “A negro has as good a right to hold a seat in the Colorado legislature as a Caucasion, if he is qualified.” (I quote the antiquated language of these old newspapers to indicate historical usage.) But then the paper calls Gunnell “illiterate” and “practically uninformed.” Shockingly, it adds, “The fact is, the effort to elevate the negro above the condition of servant, has so far been a miserable failure, notwithstanding there has been perhaps the usual number of exceptions.”
Obviously today, fourteen decades later, no newspaper would think or dare to publish such a horrifically racist opinion, although such views still might be found floating in the putrid sewers occupied by today’s racial nationalists.
Although I found out almost nothing about Gunnell, he must have been courageous to stare down the sort of rampant racism manifest in the paper.
The next record I found of a black Colorado legislator is of attorney Joseph H. Stuart, elected in 1894. A Pueblo Daily Chieftain article of October 27, 1894, reveals a lot about the man, stating, “Joseph H. Stuart makes one of the ablest speeches heard during the campaign.”
The article begins, “One of the most enthusiastic republican rallies of the campaign was held last night at the Columbia theater under the auspices of the colored republicans.” Another black speaker, “B. P. Johnson of Denver . . . said that he was born Saturday night and he was in the republican party the next morning.” Johnson added, “On the 6th of November over 7,000 colored people in Denver will be found marching up to the polls and voting the straight republican ticket.”
Stuart said, “This large crowd assures me that the people of Pueblo county are awakened to the fact that Colorado must be redeemed from populist mis-rule. The colored man is always found on the right side during a contest.”
“Stuart then reviewed the part taken in the wars of the country by the colored man since its formation,” the Chieftain reported. Stuart said, “The colored man is not a republican for spoils but is a republican for principle because he believes it is the party of the highest civilization. The republican party believes in a liberal construction of the constitution.”
Stuart railed against “the populist party [which] comes now without any definite principle. . . . It believes in the government supporting the people rather than the people supporting the government. They announce that they believe in free coinage, but if what their leaders say is true, they believe only in fiat money or irredeemable currency.” (I am one of the minority who regrets that Stuart’s side lost that particular battle.)
Stuart continued to call out his opponents, “They live on calamity, the greater the calamity the greater the party. It is an aggregation of disgruntled office-seekers, anarchists and calamity howlers. . . . They believe in getting something for nothing and a great deal of it.”
Stuart also praised women’s suffrage and warned against those attempting to suppress the black vote. He said, “I don’t see how any colored man can be anything but a republican.”
How times change. As I mentioned in a previous article, for a time in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated the Republican Party. Today, of course, almost all black politicians belong to the Democratic Party. I hope that today’s Republicans, the heirs of the Abolitionists, can again make their party the natural home of courageous defenders of liberty such as Stuart.
After his stint in the legislature, Stuart continued his work as a lawyer. A Silver Cliff Rustler article from December 1, 1897, claims that Stuart, “a colored lawyer of Denver, has been admitted to practice before the federal courts. He is said to be the first colored man in the country to be given this privilege.” (I don’t know whether he was the first.)
The Statesman describes Stuart’s “brilliant” legal work in defending a black man accused of murdering a police officer (July 20, 1906). Stuart faced “the influence which the daily press exerted on public opinion against” the accused, “the inquisition methods whereby the police department sought to drag another victim to the gallows,” and “the prevailing prejudices both in the minds of the judges and the juries,” the paper notes. Yet Stuart, “a master of his calling,” worked to seat “intelligent and fair-minded jurors” and win an acquittal.
Stuart also continued his intellectual activism. In 1908, the Statesman notes, he delivered a paper, “Socialism vs. Individualism.” I’d dearly love to find a copy of that address.
Stuart died on April 4, 1910, the Statesman reported on April 16, and “never has Shorter [AME] Church held such a mass of humanity as was present to witness the funeral.” The paper eulogizes, “The author of our civil rights bill [reference unknown] was dead, and though his body laid before that massive crowd it spoke in thundrous tones to all lovers of humanity and liberty. . . . Mr. Stuart was a valuable asset in any community and will be greatly missed by all, especially those who look to him for guidance and counsel. He was a member of the legislature and left his imprint there to the honor of the negro and now may his ashes rest in peace. The Statesman joins in with the community in mourning his loss.”
We can remember the remarkable story of Colorado’s earliest black legislators and continue their work toward a more-just society.