BLACK HISTORY MATTERS: Roiled by racial occasions in 2020, Aurora officers and neighborhood leaders discuss why
A war rages on in America, and it didn’t begin with the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Donald Trump or the assault on the Capitol.
It started with slavery and never ended, through lynchings and voter suppression, the snarling attack dogs of Bull Connor and the insidious accounting of redlining.
Today’s battles in the race war are waged by legions of white people in the thrall of stereotypes, lies and conspiracy theories that don’t just exist for recluses on some dark corner of the internet.
A statue of Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside of the MLK Jr. Library in Aurora.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado
Proponents of celebrating Black History Month say the events target those racist tropes and cliches, helping to establish the dignity and achievements of Black Americans, and to ensure people see the past as it really happened — and often didn’t.
People like the murderer who fatally shot nine Black parishioners at a church in South Carolina, telling detectives that Black people were taking over the country and raping white women. And the shooter who killed 23 and wounded 23 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas — targeting Mexicans, authorities say, because he believed they were invading the country to vote for Democrats.
And the riotous mob, rife with white supremacists, that bought in when Trump and others insisted falsely that the presidential election was stolen, mostly in areas where people of color live and vote.
For a very long time, civil rights leaders, historians and experts on extremism say, many white Americans and elected leaders have failed to acknowledge that this war of white aggression was real.
Racist notions about people of color, immigrants and politicians have been given mainstream media platforms, are represented in statues and symbols to slaveholders and segregationists, and helped demagogues win elections to high office.
The result? A critical mass of white people fears that multiculturalism, progressive politics and the equitable distribution of power spell their obsolescence, erasure and subjugation. And that fear, often exploited by those in power, has proven again and again to be among the most lethal threats to nonwhite Americans, according to racial justice advocates.
So how does the nation begin addressing the war of white aggression after countless missed opportunities?
The Rev. William Barber II said it starts with collectively refusing to have political debates rooted in lies and racist tropes.
“The collateral damage, when you keep unleashing the lies, sow the wind and pour this poison into the veins of people, is the system becomes so septic that violence spews out of it,” the civil rights leader said.
Historically, white supremacy has advanced in lockstep with fears of Black political power. After the Civil War, when formerly enslaved people got the right to vote and hold office, the white response was Jim Crow segregation, voter suppression and oppression through law enforcement.
And the Jan. 6 Capitol riot occurred the same day that Georgia declared the winners of its runoff elections — Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the first Black and Jewish candidates the Southern state had ever sent to the U.S. Senate. And it happened as Inauguration Day approached for Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian person sworn to serve as vice president.
It should not go unnoted that at least one large Confederate flag was waved by the Capitol trespassers.
To many in that mostly white mob, nonwhite Americans wielded an inconceivable amount of political influence in the last election.
“This kind of mob violence, in reaction to Black, brown and white people coming together and voting to move the nation forward in progressive ways, has always been the backlash,” Barber said.
Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said we must stop using benign terms like “culture war” to describe violence that literally kills Americans.
“All somebody had to do was actually look at the dead bodies and the killers to realize that the threat of domestic white supremacist violence has been with us for quite a while,” Segal said.
According to the ADL, roughly 74% of extremists who committed homicides in the U.S. between 2010 and 2019 were right-wing extremists, and a majority of those were white supremacists.
Christian Picciolini, a former far-right extremist who founded the deradicalization group Free Radicals Project, said it has become easy to otherize and ignore supporters of far-right movements and hate groups. It has long been part of a collective denial among white people that a real-world, violent threat exists.
“We have to understand that, if we want to prevent this in the future, we have to examine our history — 400 years of what I would classify as our nation’s potholes,” said Picciolini, who last year released the anti-extremist book “Breaking Hate.”
It means a long look at Black history that goes beyond the mostly cheerleading that’s occurred in the Aurora region for many years, prominent Black Aurora residents and officials say. After 2020, it can’t be the same.
Malcolm Graham, a former state senator in North Carolina, firmly believes that America’s failure to confront white supremacism cost the life of his older sister, Cynthia Graham-Hurd. She was among the nine killed by Dylann Roof in 2015 during a Bible study meeting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
The massacre “was a defining moment,” Graham said. But that moment was wasted when officials and the media overemphasized how victims’ families forgave the killer, instead of investigating his path to extremism, he said.
During closing arguments at Roof’s trial, a federal prosecutor said the 22-year-old avowed white supremacist intended to start a war between the races.
His actions instead sparked a national reckoning over white supremacist iconography, including the Confederate battle flag, monuments and statues that appeared in photographs and drawings investigators found among Roof’s belongings. In July 2015, former Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who is Indian American, signed legislation permanently lowering the Confederate battle flag that flew over South Carolina’s Capitol.
There have been moments when it seemed like a reckoning with racism was at hand. After last year’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, 111 Confederate monuments and other white supremacist symbols were removed, relocated or renamed, the SPLC said. But nearly 1,800 Confederate symbols, including 725 monuments, remained on public land as of December.
“Confederate symbols are not relics of the past — they are living symbols of white supremacy,” SPLC chief of staff Lecia Brooks said.
For Graham, who lost his sister at Mother Emanuel, the onus isn’t on Black people to begin negotiating a truce in the race war. Accountability must come first, he said.
“I think white folks need to have a town hall meeting, and I think they need to start calling their people out,” Graham said. “They have to be able to point a finger at folks that look like them, and point them out at their dinner table, at their churches, at their places of employment.”
Black Aurora residents and officials have similar and more opinions on the celebration of the focus on Black history and where the city and the nation go from here.
— Aaron Morrison covers race and justice for The Associated Press as a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team
Student engagement advocate with Aurora Public Schools and former Aurora poet laureate
“Unfortunately, Black history in my opinion is for them more than it is for us. For privileged, white America.”
For Jovan Mays, Black History Month is a chance to dig deeper.
Jovan Mays stands for a portrait outside of his home, Feb. 9, 2021. Mays is the former Poet Laureate for Aurora.
Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado
Aurora’s former poet laureate said the second month of the year is a chance to delve into the lesser-known stories, and often atrocities, that pockmark the history of Black America.
He pointed to the labor camps in Natchez, Mississippi where thousands of recently freed slaves were corralled into camps after the American Civil War. He referenced the mass suicide that occurred off the Georgia coast in 1803 after some six dozen Igbo people successfully mutinied a ship and refused to be sold into slavery. And he highlighted the seldom-discussed fate of Preston Porter Jr., a Black teen who was lynched via burning after being implicated in the death of a farmer’s young daughter in Limon in November 1900.
Mays has worked with the Colorado Lynching Memorial Project to lay a historical marker in Denver’s Larimer Square to commemorate Porter’s life and cruel death. The site was previously the site of Denver City Hall and the city jail, which was where Porter was first detained before being taken to Limon to die.
“We’ve been tricked in Black history to focus on our accomplishments, and they’re always within a white sector, and so we have our lens sort of selected for us,” said Mays, who currently works as a student engagement advocate with Aurora Public Schools. “ … I think what we’re now seeing this year is an illumination on these deep stories that I think Black people have been pushing for a long time now to be told. I just think that these are the things — like the slave revolts — that weren’t told to us.”
He said he often takes February as a chance to examine those glossed-over historical enormities and occasionally lace them into his poetry. Now an educator himself, he said he’s optimistic future Black History Month lessons in the classroom will focus more on current events, like the death of Elijah McClain, as much if not more than the traditional staples like the 1987 documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”
“I would love for a school to have, like, an Elijah McClain conversation about how we got
to this place,” he said. “ … If we teach it in a way that is honest and connects to the now, I really believe that we will foster a ground for more change agents to come into the cut.”
Mays pointed to people like his father, who grew up in Queens, New York, as an example of someone who could possibly help contextualize the recent decades of violence against Black Americans.
“I was rapping with my dad, and I was like, ‘Can you tell me, like, your era’s Elijah McClain?’ Mays said. “My dad grew up in Queens, and his answer was literally, ‘Which block?’ … I hope we can find people like my dad to tell the story of the dude on his block and what it was like as a child to see other children of the same age as him outlined in chalk, knowing that there wasn’t justice coming their way.”
As it is now, Mays said much of the standard Black History Month curriculum has been designed to serve those who spent decades trying to erase it — not those whose faces appear on staid textbook pages.
“Unfortunately, Black history in my opinion is for them more than it is for us,” he said. “For privileged, white America.”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer
Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism
“What gets lost is Black joy and Black brilliance.”
February is another busy month for the students at Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism, said Janiece Mackey, the group’s executive director. It’s a civics hub for students of color in Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District.
On top of activist forums slated with one local school district, the young movers and shakers at YAASPA have launched a forum with the City of Aurora also scrutinizing King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail “from a Gen-Z perspective,” Mackey said.
The webinar is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25 at 6 p.m.
The event is a nod to Black History Month. But Mackey, who is an adult supervisor, also reiterated that race is front and center in the organization’s mission all year round. She sees Black History Month as a way to “amplify and honor and dignify Black lives.”
Mackey said that, when she works with Aurora youth, they notice a trend in Black history books: the story from slavery and Jim Crow to the complex modern era tends to focus on “Black pain.”
“What gets lost is Black joy and Black brilliance,” Mackey said.
The students in YAASPA are crafting creative ways to celebrate the gamut of Black experiences, she said. Aurora students also plan to launch Black Spirit Week events at Smoky Hill High School and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, YAASPA students are continuing to advocate on the issues that are most important to them.
The youth and Aurora’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch have a closed-door meeting planned with Cherry Creek district personnel to chart the course of policing in schools.
A Sentinel investigation last year found that Black students were disproportionately referred to police officers for school conduct issues in Cherry Creek and, to a lesser extent, Aurora Public Schools.
So-called school resource officers — police officers working in schools — also disproportionately issued arrests or court summonses to Black students.
Cherry Creek officials launched a series of forums with students, including those in YAASPA, and the community to consider solutions.
— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer
City of Aurora at-large council member
“We’ve come a long way, but we still, to me, have a long way to go in terms of looking at disparities and racial bias and how we are viewed as Black people.”
The city’s lone African-American member of the Aurora City Council, Angela Lawson, doesn’t wait around all year for Black History Month.
Aurora Councilwoman Angela Lawson stands for a portrait outside of Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Feb. 9, 2021, in Aurora.
Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado
“I always believe that Black history is not just one month. I always think that it’s every single day,” Lawson said.
But this month is an important time, she said, to reflect on past triumphs and imagine a brighter future for Black Americans. It’s a few weeks to ponder the “real opportunity to really galvanize this time and really talk about issues that are impacting Black people in general,” Lawson said.
Despite a massive protest movement for racial justice last year, Lawson noted that deep challenges continue to plague Black Americans during the pandemic and recession.
An Associated Press analysis found last year that Black Americans die at disproportionately high rates, whether from disease or violence. Black and Hispanic Americans have succumbed to COVID-19 at higher rates than their white peers while racial wealth gaps widened. Nationally, Black residents continue to suffer from lower rates of homeownership after a well-documented history of racist policies and lending practices.
And Aurora continues to have its own reckoning with police violence.
Aurora cops have disproportionately used pepper spray, dogs, Tasers and other restraints on Black Aurorans, according to a city report last year. The death of Elijah McClain, captured in part on officers’ body-worn cameras, horrified the globe. City investigations continue into his death almost a year-and-a-half after his death.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still, to me, have a long way to go in terms of looking at disparities and racial bias and how we are viewed as Black people,” Lawson said.
Still, Lawson said she would have expected a more vibrant month of marches, events and panels during February after massive protests swarmed Aurora city hall and Interstate 225 this summer.
She said it’s possible that she’s not hearing about gatherings — virtual or otherwise. But her sense is that this year’s Black History Month is a bit sleepy.
The Aurora public library branch hadn’t planned anything concrete as of Feb. 9, a city spokesperson said. A forum was planned for Feb. 25 with youth and adult activists.
“I am a little disappointed that we’re not having these types of conversations,” she said.
The City of Aurora and its Human Relations Commission is coming off of a month flush with panels and the like to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Jan. 18. Those included interfaith services, a close look at the Reverend’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail and celebrations of civil rights achievements.
This month, Lawson recommended people dive into documentaries and books to learn more about Black history. She touted films “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years” and “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” as well as books “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019” and W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.”
— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer
Democratic State Senator representing Senate District 28
“By telling those stories and by letting people know how those things affected me, it really opens up a really helpful dialogue.”
When Janet Buckner approached the dais in the state Capitol three days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, she wasn’t planning on becoming a viral star.
Janet Buckner speaks during a Democratic watch party on Tuesday Nov. 08, 2016 at Radisson Hotel Denver Southeast.
Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
In fact, the then-70-year-old Buckner, a state representative from Aurora, wasn’t even planning on detailing the personal anecdote that brought many in the House chamber to tears.
“The day that I went down to the mic, that’s not what I was going to talk about, but I’d just had a conservation with one of my grandchildren who couldn’t understand why I couldn’t swim,” said Buckner, who turned 74 this week.
That query from her 9-year-old granddaughter prompted Buckner to explain to her colleagues, and the world, why she has maintained a lifelong fear of water. As a Black girl in Lawrenceberg, Indiana, she was barred from swimming in the public pool save for the night before they drained the water and cleaned the basin. After she was eventually let into the pool, she was called the n-word and almost drowned.
“I’ve never been able to erase it from my head,” Buckner told The Sentinel Tuesday. “It’s just amazing how that can affect your life.”
The clip of Buckner relaying her childhood trauma has now garnered more than 4 million views online, she estimated. On top of that, she keeps a file of the umpteen letters and printed-out emails she’s received from around the world, praising her for outlining her experience in the American midwest.
It’s stories like that, Buckner said, that are able to spark the elucidating dialogues that are often so-needed in an increasingly bifurcated world.
“By telling those stories and by letting people know how those things affected me, it really opens up a really helpful dialogue,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s always going to change people’s opinions, but it does help.”
Buckner, who has since graduated to the state senate, said such accounts, as well as those from recent history, are especially important to relate during Black History Month.
“I think this year more than ever we need to really come together and have conversations — and they may be really difficult conversations — but we need to meet people where they are in their thinking so we can have a better understanding of each other,” she said.
Among the myriad topics of those conversations should be names that rang through the American zeitgeist nationally and locally last year, such as George Floyd and Elijah McClain, Buckner said.
“I think we need to pay tribute to the generations of African-Americans who have struggled, but I also think that list is going to increase because there are a lot of individuals with names many of us don’t recognize,” she said. “But they have been heroes. Elijah McClain is definitely going to go down in history. When George Floyd was killed that opened up to America — vividly — how badly so many Black people are treated. I heard so many people say, ‘We had no idea.’
“I think everyone needs to know the history of Black people, of African-Americans from slavery all the way up to now. You have to know that history, and systemic racism will not improve or change unless we acknowledge what has happened. It just won’t.”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer
Superintendent of Aurora Public Schools
“Moments of strife and stress are well known to reveal who we are, and that’s as persons and a country.”
For Rico Munn, the time to be indirect about working for racial equality is over. Since 2013 Munn has served as superintendent of the Aurora Public Schools.
Aurora Public Schools Superintndent Rico Munn is seen in a reflection from a framed Franco Harris jersey, which hangs in his office.
Portrait by Philip B. Poston/The Sentinel
APS has been doing equity work for years, Munn told The Sentinel. But following the protests last summer, Munn said he realized that the district needs to be more explicit about what it’s doing, a sentiment he shared with employees at his annual all-staff meeting (virtual this time) at the beginning of the school year.
“We have done really good work trying to elevate voices and trying to identify and speak to key equity issues,” he said. “But we have not necessarily been as explicit about the why and the imperative around that as I think we could be and needed to be in this moment in time.”
The district is working with the organization Promise 54 to identify barriers to recruiting and retaining teachers of color. In a presentation to the school board in the fall, the Promise 54 working group found that teachers of color are much less likely to feel that they can bring their “whole selves” to work than white teachers. The district is now working on finding solutions, Munn said.
APS is home to 40,000 students across the city, the majority of whom are Latino or Black. The events of the past year, including the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, an increase in far-right activity and the inequalities worsened by the pandemic have all taken a toll on young people.
“The rise of what I would say the boldness of white nationalism and the rise of the boldness of various hate groups has really impacted our young people and students in trying to understand where they fit in the American dream when there are so many people who actively want to deprive them of that,” Munn said.
“It has ignited in them an understanding that that’s something they will continue to have to fight for in a way that perhaps we did not fully appreciate over the last several years.”
In an editorial penned in June, Munn shared how his own experiences of racism inform the way he leads.
“I am challenged by the recognition that every decision I make is about resolving the duality between living in the greatest country on earth and living in an America that cruelly and intentionally dehumanizes and discards people based upon the color of their skin,” he said.
Eight months later, he said he sees his role as continuing to work to eliminate that duality.
“Moments of strife and stress are well known to reveal who we are, and that’s as persons and a country,” Munn said. “I’ve seen the best of us and the worst of us. And I think the responsibility of leaders in this time is to continue to try and steer us towards our better angels.”
— CARINA JULIG, Staff Writer
Democratic state senator representing Senate District 29
“I didn’t know I was really Black until somebody told me I was Black.”
One of Rhonda Fields’ first experiences with overt racism was bound to a community pool some 5,000 miles from the city she would eventually call home.
Colorado State Sen. Rhonda Field, D-Aurora, wears a face mask and latex gloves while conducting business on the floor Tuesday, May 26, 2020, in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
The daughter of a military man who bounced between bases in Germany and the U.S., Fields said she was living in Germany as a 7 or 8-year-old the first time she recalled explicitly being called Black.
“I was really, really sheltered,” she said of her upbringing on bases in Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Berlin. “I didn’t know I was really Black until somebody told me I was Black.”
That acknowledgment came when she was precluded from swimming at a neighborhood pool in Germany.
“When you’re Black, I believe there’s always someone who’s willing to remind you that you’re Black,” said Fields, an Aurora Democrat who recently won another term representing state Senate District 29. “And they’ll try to limit your opportunities or interfere with your potential because they don’t think you’re worthy.”
It wasn’t until she enrolled in college at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley that Fields said she truly delved into the nuance, the complexity and the depth of the American Black experience.
“When I was growing up as a young girl and woman, I didn’t really know my history until I went to college,” she said. “The only thing I knew about Black history was Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and slavery … Black people have done some amazing stuff, but I was denied that exposure growing up because it wasn’t in the history books. My history was not told.”
For that reason, Fields said she has long cherished the annual celebrations that unfold during Black History Month, as they give Black residents the chance to commemorate the countless contributions of the past.
“We survived a lot,” she said. “I think we need to celebrate those achievements and those contributions.”
Still, Fields, who has tethered much of her career under the golden dome to social justice and judicial reform, said she believes the racial reckoning that ricocheted across the country after the death of George Floyd last year should be incorporated into Black History Month conversations in 2021.
“I think we do have to have those discussions because if we don’t, we’re suffocating ourselves in silence,” she said of the cases of Floyd in Minneapolis and Elijah McClain in Aurora.
She said enhanced solidarity from white residents should continue to empower such conversations.
“What happened during the summer is we’ve seen more white folks really validate Black Lives Matter. Before it was so distant. But I think when people witnessed that officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes people were horrified. But that’s been an experience that Black people have endured ever since lynching.
“You never get used to it, but when you have white people say ‘Black lives matter’ and they are laying down on the west steps of the Capitol for eight minutes symbolizing that murder, it drew a lot of attention, not only in Colorado or in the U.S. but across the world. Everyone saw.”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer
Aurora artist and former executive director of the Aurora Cultural Arts District
“I haven’t had to sit down and talk to them and say like, ‘You’re Black,’ but I do positive self-care and positive self-esteem things.”
Like innumerable Americans, signposts of change dotted Satya Wimbish’s calendar last year.
Satya Wimbish (Sentinel File Photo)
The longtime stalwart of the Aurora arts scene left her role as executive director of the Aurora Cultural Arts District in the spring, and she uprooted from the metro area in the early summer with her two young daughters. Recently, she obtained legal sole custody of the children, Flourish, 1, and Eva, 3, and leaned further into the pandemic-era life of a single parent.
“I never expected to have a daycare in my house,” she said with a chuckle. “That was definitely not part of the plan, but it’s how life has turned out, so here we are.”
The start of 2021 has been equally extraordinary for Wimbish, including the Black History Month activities that have been aplenty in Februarys past.
“It’s not as intense and active, and that’s just because of the quarantine and me being home with the kids,” she said of the second month of the new year. “It’s not me being out everywhere, like if we were in the (Aurora Cultural Arts District) and had performances all month long, and I was working with artists. We don’t have the ability to do that, but it’s still meaningful for me … It’s more of a personal reflection on how far we’ve gone, but also how we’re still the same in so many different respects.”
That internal mulling has been a theme for Wimbish this year, who forewent attending protests across the Aurora region this summer with eyes toward protecting her girls.
“I was not as actively involved as I would have been because of the girls and the virus, otherwise I would have been out protesting and doing things like that, but I couldn’t risk going out there,” she said. “This motherhood stuff has me thinking in different ways that I am not necessarily accustomed to.”
In lieu of toting her youngins to sometimes tumultuous protests, she’s started slowly peppering her kids’ nascent media diets with positive Black images and role models.
“I haven’t had to sit down and talk to them and say like, ‘You’re Black,’ but I do positive self-care and positive self-esteem things,” she said.
So far, that’s meant tuning to Netflix shows or flipping open books with empowering Black characters.
Still, Wimbish said she’s already preparing conversations with her oldest daughter akin to those her father, one of the few Black computer engineers in Washington, had with her as a child.
“He would have conversations with me about how he was treated as a Black man, and how he had to work harder and outsmart people,” she said. “He had those conversations with me growing up, and I think that’s what has helped me navigate a lot of those environments where there weren’t too many others like me.”
She pointed to a lifetime of examples, from her days as an intern at Rocky Mountain PBS, to working at the Denver District Attorney’s Office in her early 20s, to recently helming Aurora’s creative corridor on East Colfax Avenue. In all of those roles, she said she was often the only Black woman in the room.
“To my knowledge, I was the only Black board president and the only Black female president of an arts district in Colorado,” Wimbish said.
She said she’ll use those experiences, and those of her father, to ready her tots for life as Black women in America.
“They’re definitely going to get those conversations,” she said. “We’re going to have to have those conservations.”
In the meantime, the fervent creator is working on buoying her fellow Black creatives across the state. Wimbish is currently focused on cataloguing and promoting a slate of Black artists in Colorado in coordination with Denver arts hub ArtHyve. The project involves creating an archive of currently working Black creators, pushing their work and creating individual Wikipedia pages for each artist.
“ArtHyve is trying to help artists in Colorado tell their stories, document who they are in the current times and how art is just helping to shape what’s happening within Colorado,” she said.
In between Wikipedia entries, she’ll be spending the rest of the month schlepping her rug rats to swimming lessons in preparation for getting the oldest ready to dive into water sports this summer. She said she already purchased a pink kayak for her birthday in June.
“I told her she had to learn how to swim before she got a kayak,” Wimbish said. “She already put her whole face in the water last week.”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer