August 26, 2021

MCA Denver Curatorial Intern, Florence Blackwell in conversation with Terry Nelson, Senior Special Collection & Community Resource Manager at Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library

Florence Blackwell


It was an extraordinary experience to intern at MCA Denver this summer and see my portrait and words on the wall, among ninety-nine others, in the exhibition, Colorado in the Present Tense featuring Narkita Gold: Black in Denver. My participation in this photograph and interview series allowed me to celebrate myself, see myself represented in visual culture, and facilitate my healing by providing a platform to share my story. As I saw similarities in others' stories, I felt more connected to this place I've called home for six years. I am so thankful to Miranda Lash, Ellen Bruss Curator at MCA Denver, who encouraged my commitment to learning about Denver's Black history by presenting me with the opportunity to research jazz history in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver as groundwork for the upcoming exhibition, Jason Moran: Bathing the Room with Blues. I am proud to have been a part of producing an emotionally charged and intellectually layered show, and I am excited that the public can soon experience the works of Jason Moran while learning more about an under-explored area of Denver's history. 

Early in the research process, I realized that I could not rely solely on articles and book excerpts to acquire a rich understanding of Five Points, an area once dubbed, “The Harlem of the West”. It was also essential to include first-person accounts to articulate the whole story. I am grateful the roadblocks in the research compelled me to contact Terry Nelson from the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library for guidance. She is a librarian who leads with kindness and genuinely believes in the limitless power of collective knowledge. Most importantly, Terry's willingness to share her story has enriched the exhibition as well as my life. I wanted to share the mic with Terry to learn about her career and the responsibilities of maintaining an extensive archive of local African American history. 

Florence: So, that first day that I met you, we sat in this room and talked for like four hours. I think it was so enriching and it felt like I knew you for my entire life, and I just wanted to know more about you. You are the Senior Special Collection & Community Resource Manager at the Blair-Caldwell Library. Can you describe what your duties are? 

Terry:  I’ll tell you first of all that the Blair Caldwell Library opened in April of 2003, and we are part of the vision and the legacy of the first African American Mayor of the City and County of Denver and his wife, state representative Wilma Jay Webb, and Wellington E. Webb. I should not forget him first and we are here because of his vision, and he enlisted us and a few community people to help plan this particular library, but we went all over the country looking at African American libraries, and African American archives and African American research, and library research, all of that together to kind of decide what would work here in the West. People seldom think about African Americans being here in this part of the country. As I have traveled around the country and I tell people that I'm from Denver, Colorado, they look at me then they look again and they said “We didn't know they had African Americans in Denver? What do you do in Denver?” So I said, “Well one thing we're not still doing is riding horses, and looking for gold.” I said, “It's just like any other city, but we have a very small African American population here, and we have a very rich history in this part of the country.” . This library is here to represent those wonderful contributions that the community has made to build, not just the West, but all of America. 

So this is our twentieth year. All the we have collected, over three hundred collections, we are archiving, cataloging them and digitizing them so that the whole world can look at what's in our collection of materials and if they want to come and visit they are here to be looked at, or you could check them out and look at them online. So that's basically what we do. We do a lot of programming particularly acting as an additional resource to students and teachers. And we add to their curriculum because many of the schools don't teach in Colorado history much about African Americans. So we have been a conduit to enrich that particular topic. 

Watch Growing up in Five Points with Terry Nelson