Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became a leading Abolitionist, is one of the great American heroes of all time. For an introduction to Douglass’s life and impact, see my recent conversation with Timothy Sandefur, an Arizona attorney who wrote a book about Douglass. What many Coloradans may not know is that Colorado history has some close ties to Douglass.
First let’s set the context. Douglass, born into slavery in 1818, became active in the Abolitionist movement, witnessed the Civil War, and saw the rise of subsequent racist laws and racially motivated terror campaigns against Black Americans.
As I’ve noted, Colorado statehood was delayed largely over the disenfranchisement of Black people. From what I can tell, two Black men rose to the Colorado legislature in the late 1800s despite widespread racism of the time, including the remarkable attorney Joseph H. Stuart. Stuart, who promoted anti-discrimination laws, was elected in 1894. (Incidentally, I still think someone should commission a statue of Stuart to place in or near the state capitol.)
Black activists who supported Stuart likely thought that his election marked an important advance toward political equality in Colorado. And it was a milestone. Horribly, though, by 1925, the Ku Klux Klan had taken over not only the Denver mayor’s office but the governor’s seat and part of the legislature. Thankfully, the Klan’s political dominance here was short-lived—but the fact that the Klan ever gained a foothold is terrifying.
Today, the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado has eight members. Two Black legislators, Peter Groff and Terrance Carroll, have served as the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, respectively. These political successes reflect a broader bending of the “moral arc” toward a less racist, more inclusive, and more politically equal society.
And yet obviously we still have some “bending” left to do. Recently Carroll—again, this is a man who served as the leader of Colorado’s House—remarked on his personal pain and fear. Referring to the recent presidential debate, Carroll Tweeted, “I was personally offended by Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists. I was frightened by his marching orders to the Proud Boys. As a Black man, I feel like he placed a target on my back. I’m angered by my White friends who refuse to denounce his statements. I haven’t said publicly or privately until now but despite all my success, degrees, and privilege I have never felt as unsafe in my own country as I do. Simply leaving the house makes me anxious. Yet, I have White friends who fail to understand the tacit acceptance and encouragement of white supremacy has made this country significantly less safe, if not unsafe, for me as a Black man. They don’t understand bigots and racist have been emboldened to devalue my life.” One need not agree with all of Carroll’s politics to empathize with his pain and to recognize the very real threat of racial nationalism. (Trump did later explicitly condemn white supremacists.)
With this general history in mind, let us turn to Colorado’s ties to Douglass. Central to the story is Henry O. Wagoner, sometimes called “the Douglass of Colorado,” himself a hero of the Underground Railroad, a recruiter for the Union army, and a civil-rights activist. (Wikipedia has a nice entry on Wagoner based largely on an essay about the man by Richard Junger.)
In the late 1840s, Wagoner contributed to Douglass’s publication, and once the men met they became fast friends. In 1860, Wagoner moved to Denver with his brother-in-law, Barney L. Ford, who went on to become one of Colorado’s great entrepreneurs. Wagoner himself found success in business, first with a mill in Chicago and later with a restaurant in Denver. Wagoner soon left Colorado to help with the war effort but returned after.
History Colorado summarizes Wagoner’s story from there: “He and Lewis Henry Douglass, one of Frederick Douglass’s sons, taught reading and writing to black adults in his home until the Denver school board approved a segregated school building in 1867, and integrated public schools in 1873. A firm believer in the principles of democracy, Wagoner was appointed a clerk in the first Colorado Legislature in 1876, and later appointed deputy sheriff of Arapahoe County in 1880.”
One thing we can appreciate about Wagoner is his optimistic spirit. As Junger quotes, in 1873 Wagoner wrote to Douglass, “What a glorious century is this in which you and I have lived. Of course we will continue to the End to all the good we can, so let us, in the mean time, be as jovial and as happy as we may.”
Later, in 1885, Wagoner wrote to Douglass (again as quoted by Junger), “It is and ought to be a consolation to you and to me to recall the pleasant fact that during an intimacy of about forty years, stretching over a period of great antagonism of opinions, still our friendship has never broken. This is a rare fact, and especially as we both happen to be men of strong convictions.”
May these great leaders’ convictions continue to inspire us as we shoulder the work of bending the moral arc in our own time.