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Outside the Law: Michelle Sylvain's Discovery, Documentation, and Pledge to Share History

In my downtime I read history. I love it. History helps me better understand the fascinating backdrop of this state where I was born and in which I have spent most of my life. My parents met as students at DU in the 50s and one of the many wonderful things they bequeathed to me was a natural curiosity about Colorado's original inhabitants and the later migrants who have made their way to Colorado in search of a better life.


Like so many who are in love with the state, I live for the mountains. It’s been my privilege to live in mountain areas throughout Colorado, from the southern La Plata Mountains to the Vail Valley. I began my legal career advocating for female coal miners and traveling through the mountain towns of Paonia, Leadville, and Clear Creek. I found joy teasing out whatever nuggets I could about the diverse people who populate our state.


Yet, as an African American native, I developed a special interest in the migration story of those who came when the end of Southern reconstruction made continued existence in the Southern U.S. unbearable. As I frequented historical events and commemorations, I became more focused on how these early migrants helped shape and contour a place that borrowed so much without attribution from its original inhabitants and then built on the unacknowledged brain and brawn of its diverse newcomers.


As we approach the second 100 hundred years of becoming a state, I made a surprising discovery—even some historians didn’t know a lot about the diversity and ingenuity of these early Coloradoans. When I read that the Executive Director of the Historical Society of a mountain community had responded to a reporter’s question about potential Black History Month celebrations with the non sequitur that none were planned as there are very few African Americans (and impliedly very little Black history) in the County, I knew I had to do something. Her comment inspired my vow to record and share this history.


I have lived in this community for almost a decade and I know four things to be true:

  1. There was so much that had happened before the Moffats and Brown’ dropped in.

  2. The counties of Eagle, Lake, Summit, and Clear Creek were locations of sweat equity for many African American homesteaders, cowboys, and miners

  3. Quite a few folks of my complexion now lived in Eagle County precisely because those people had come here as a bridge and all of us would have enjoyed a Black History Month celebration.

  4. And the many brown, yellow, and white neighbors I had come to know would have enjoyed such programing precisely because it would have given them new information.


Yet, there was a disturbing question that egged me on. As a native Coloradoan of African American descent, I had often wondered, “Why don’t we hear more about the African Americans who came West—especially during the period from the 1870s to the 1910s?” I was curious about this time since this was when America desperately wanted to populate the Western frontier—and the same epoch that 4 million plus African Americans were literally free (and seemingly motivated) to move.


I had not understood the disconnect—between the opportunity and the actual numbers, the journeys taken, and the knowledge of them.[1] Yet, my life, and those of my family and close friends, were evidence that something had happened—it was just hard to understand why there was no written documentation.

My classes at DU Law delved into the details of some of the most generous railroad laws and American immigration policies ever passed, again, to lure folks West. How could there be no history of their impact on African Americans? This was especially confounding given the documentation of movement by Americans from the East Coast: Germans, Spanish, and French from Western Europe, and Poles, Belarusians, and Jews from Eastern Europe who had managed, with a lot of help and American generosity, to establish a toehold out West. I was well into young adulthood before I discovered the answer.


Turns out that not only were there well-developed communities of color with sophisticated systems of governance and sustainable water practices already here, but also—surprise—a lot of Black people did come West, searching for the same opportunities as other settlers. I learned that over 25% of American cowboys were Black. From my eventual husband, I learned the history of the Buffalo soldiers who patrolled the West and helped steward it.



I discovered the stories of those closer to my hometown, like the founders of The Dry, in southern Colorado, and Dearfield, Colorado, in the northern part of the state a little east of Greeley. I came to better appreciate the stories of people like Charles Hall, a barber: born in Maryland, but reported in the 1870 census as boarding with four other African Americans in Arapahoe County.[2] There were the lawyers Joseph Stuart and Edwin Hackley, the first Black lawyers in Colorado. Later, I became acquainted with Black miners in Leadville, Colorado, and mining grubstakes geniuses like “Aunt” Clara Brown in Central City.[3]


It became clear to me that African Americans migrated to Colorado and other parts of the West before and after the Civil War, and they made enormous impacts that still exist today. Although they were fewer in number than the families that migrated to Oklahoma, and Kansas, those who settled in Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Leadville, and other smaller towns throughout the state left an enormous impact on our state.


In addition, the first Black attorneys came to Colorado for just that reason, including Samuel Cary, William Townsend, George Ross, and Thomas Campbell, who attracted those making their mark across the nation like Ida B. Wells and George Carver. Others were the first editors of pioneering Colorado newspapers, like the Denver Stateman. So, the juicier question is why is there so little trace of the migration of African American families in Western American history? Why did they come and where did they go? And finally, the million-dollar inquiry: How can this oversight of a critical piece of American History be remedied?


To me, it’s important because to uncover personal and institutional biases that prevent all people, especially people of color, from reaching their fullest potential, we must know what we’re missing. Having pertinent information as well as a shared language and shared information is a critical and crucial start.


Importantly, preserving the history of African American migration to the West matters. Like the Great Migration of Blacks moving from the Southern United States to the North, acknowledged to be an enormous event in the history of this country, the Black Western migration was also seminal in many ways that impact the cultural markers of western lore—from cowboys to the struggles of courageous settlers—that would benefit from a more holistic and complete explication. This is especially compelling as it’s a story that currently is being documented by only a few historians and is being misrepresented by others out of ignorance.


I find it important to not only acknowledge the existence of this history but also celebrate those individuals and families who braved harsh realities to move West and who created the bridge that my own family crossed over on and which still holds all of us up today. I realized that much work is still needed to make this known. So, my love of history continues to help me make small contributions toward making the obscure better known. So that is what I do now, in my spare time. I discover. I document. And I pledge to share.

 

[1] When my parents came from Texas and Arkansas to attend the University of Denver in the 50’s they were so beguiled by Colorado’s beauty that both told their families that it would take a lot to get them to ever leave. My 90-year-old Mother continues to say this and lives here still, along with me and two brothers. The pictures in this piece come from various museums.

[2] See photo:


[3] Lesser known about “Aunt” Clara Brown who has her picture enshrined in the dome of the Colorado state capital is that she never stopped looking for her daughter, who had been sold away during slavery and whom she vowed to find after Emancipation. It took 50 years of challenging work and saving her grubstake money, but eventually she did.

 

Michelle Sylvain, Esq., is an attorney-mediator, arbitrator and conflict resolution coach with ADR Solutions Company, LLC, an alternative dispute resolution firm. She founded ADR Solutions to help parties effectively resolve disputes in family law, real estate, and other civil contract disputes in rural Colorado. She is a contract mediator with the Colorado Office of Dispute Resolution and helped create the online 5th Judicial Remote Mediation Project, a volunteer pilot project resolving small claims and civil disputes through the Colorado Judicial Department WebEx platform. She also created and managed one of the first Colorado Self-Help Centers for Self-Represented Litigants. Prior to founding her mediation practice, she had a private practice litigating real estate and contract cases, served as a tenure track law professor teaching real estate and contracts law, and served a decade with the Colorado Judicial Department as a Staff Attorney managing criminal, family law and real estate court dockets. She is currently the President of the Colorado Association of Black Women Attorneys, and is the immediate past chair of the ADR Section of the Colorado Bar Association. Currently, she also provides coaching and tools for the effective management of highly emotional conflict situations, and EDI.

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