The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library is considered to be the “gateway” to the historic cultural district of Five Points, serving as an important resource for visitors and residents. Jameka Lewis, branch supervisor of Blair-Caldwell, said the history of the Five Points area is more important than ever to keep alive as the neighborhood continues to change.
“It means a lot, especially now with the neighborhood changing so rapidly. And there’s just very few Black-focused institutions, there’s very few Black-owned businesses that are still here,” Lewis said. “And so us being this established Black institution in this neighborhood that has rapidly changed—I think it’s very symbolic.”
On Aug. 12, Blair-Caldwell reopened its doors after a year-long renovation project just in time to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The Welton Street library was closed in May 2022 to repair the HVAC system and make accessibility and design changes. Historical photos of Black Coloradans are now displayed on the end of each bookshelf and along the walls. Personal collections like comic books, signage and records were brought in by staff to display in cases. Art made by community members like Sam McNeil brings life to the space.
“We think representation is very important. Everything that we do, when it comes to programming, when it comes to outreach, all of that has that Black history aspect,” Lewis said. “But learning that history is for everyone. It’s not just for Black people. The history of Five Points is the history of Denver. And the history of Denver is the history of Colorado.”
Blair-Caldwell first opened in 2003, with a traditional library on the first floor, a research library on the second and the Western Legacies Museum on the third. The museum celebrates the Black culture of Five Points and those who settled the Rocky Mountain West. When renovating the space, those involved with the project wanted that rich history to be the focus of the main floor.
“We had different community groups that helped us make decisions with the renovation. Just the idea of bringing the history from the second and third floors all the way down—That was something that we did very intentionally, and we really, really wanted the community to be able to come into the first floor and see this history,” Lewis said.
The renovation was made possible by the Elevate Denver Bond, which was passed by voters in 2017 and allocated about $2.8 million to the project. Last year, voters also passed Referred Question 2I, which slightly raised property taxes for additional funding for the Denver Public Library Fund. With the renovations, Colorado’s Black history is in plain view. But with each floor, more history is uncovered. The Wilma J. Webb Archives Research and Reading Room is host to 200 items showcasing the Black experience in the West, focusing on Colorado and Five Points.
“We find connections with Henry Wagner, Barney Ford and [Warren G.] Harding, and other Coloradans. We definitely want to show that there are big and small stories both in Five Points, and the national implications as well,” said Museum and Archives Supervisor Dexter Nelson II.
In the future, the team at Blair-Caldwell hopes to offer new programs like oral histories and more exhibits and displays. Nelson urged visitors to share with the staff what they want to see and learn about and hopes the library can “pave the way forward hand in hand with the community telling us what they want to see.”
“Since we’ve been opened, people come in saying, ‘Oh man, so glad you guys are back open, you guys are still here. This is really cool.’ We’re definitely feeling that sense of need from the community,” Nelson said.