While many people know Denver as a product of westward expansion, fewer know its history of displacement. But nearly a year of archaeological digs on the Auraria Higher Education Campus hope to remedy this absence of knowledge.
Since August 2022, students and professors have been busy extracting century-old findings from beneath the Ninth Street Historic Park. From horseshoes and hair combs to ceramics and coins, these items are now part of an exhibit that opened to the public on August 23.
Titled “I Am Auraria,” the exhibit is located in the Auraria Campus Library, which sits one street over from the Ninth Street Historical Park. In the park, fourteen turn-of-the-century homes stand preserved from the original Auraria that existed before the downtown campus was built. They provide a slice of the history of the former neighborhood that once stood in the location.
“For Aurarians, there is nothing that commemorates or communicates their story,” said Dr. Michael Kolb, a professor of anthropology at MSU Denver. “Even on Ninth Street, there are plaques and such but nothing that talks about the displacement of peoples, so this exhibit at least acknowledges that.”
Sometimes referred to as Denver’s oldest neighborhood, Auraria existed along Cherry Creek’s west banks for two years before merging with Denver in 1860. Over a century later, it was destroyed to build the Auraria Higher Education Campus. This act would become one of many government projects executed in the name of “urban renewal,” a term that served as sufficient justification for removing established communities.
“The state was really desperate to create an urban campus,” Kolb said. “So to take over this area they argued that it was rundown, prone to flooding, and blighted.”
The reality, however, was very different. According to the history provided in the “I Am Auraria” exhibit, the mid-century neighborhood consisted of many working-class Hispanic and immigrant families. The culmination of redlining and migration made for a close-knit community, a cultural enclave complete with churches, schools, and bustling local businesses. It was in 1969 when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority came knocking and—in an attempt to expand the city’s tax funding—tagged Auraria for redevelopment.
“They would come into people’s houses and try to convince the families of the progress that was going to be made,” said former Auraria resident Sheila Perez-Kindle in her oral history. “They were making all these promises that we would have access to education, the pool, the gym, the library. None of that happened for many years, until now.”
It wasn’t until recently that the long-promised Displaced Aurarian Scholarship was fully realized, providing free tuition for those who were Auraria residents between 1955 and 1973 and for their direct relations. But most of all, Aurarians and their descendants remain hungry for acknowledgment, and archaeology is aiding the cause.
“Archaeology you see on the news is very esoteric,” Kolb said. “Uncovering Ancient Egypt is cool but it doesn’t really have a direct impact. Here, we are impacting students on campus, the Denver community, and most importantly for the native community of Auraria and the people who lived here.”
The archaeological process was headed by Gene Wheaton, a professor of anthropology at Community College of Denver, who first conducted ground penetrating radar and invited the MSU department onto the project. A year later, the “I Am Auraria” exhibit was revealed in partnership with History Colorado’s Museum of Memory series, and will remain in the Auraria Library for the foreseeable future.
“Our main goal is to bring awareness to those families in this generation,” said Shawn Coble, an anthropology student at MSU Denver and a curator for the exhibit. “It’s important that their history is not forgotten.”
The “I Am Auraria” exhibit is open and free to the public inside the campus library. For more information about the display or to hear the oral histories, visit the History Colorado website.