Academics & Research

History majors unveil research into Denver race relations

Before graduating, DU requires its history majors to complete a significant research project, and this year two students embarked on original research into race relations in North Denver.

“During the 1920s, the KKK were very powerful in Denver. They controlled many of the political offices, including mayor during this time,” says senior history major Wauneta Vann. “What allowed blacks to be so successful during this time was that the KKK were more concerned with Catholics and immigrants in Denver.”

Vann’s thesis, which she summarized at the history department’s third annual undergraduate conference March 7, focuses on how blacks were able to rise above the persecution. She looks specifically at Denver musician and jazz club owner George Morrison.

“For years black jazz musicians had been performing and entertaining mostly white audiences,” Vann says. “So this was not seen as a threat to the KKK and it allowed blacks to gain both social and economic status.”

Senior history major Bianca Ortiz’s research picks up where Vann’s leaves off. Her thesis, “Park Hill Action Committee: The Stabilizing Force of 1960 Denver,” focuses on how the committee’s desire to maintain property value actually helped racially integrate the Park Hill and North Park Hill communities.

“African-Americans were moving out of Five Points because the lack of housing and were buying homes in North Park Hill,” Ortiz says. “However, this Park Hill housing was only available because white families were scared by rumors spread by real estate officers who wanted to profit by moving the white family out, then selling the same home to an African-American family.”

Ortiz says the Park Hill Action Committee (PHAC) took action against these real estate agents because they were concerned about the decline of property prices in their neighborhoods.

“These individuals did not have to become involved in the civil rights movement because their rights were not compromised, but they still wanted to help the cause,” Ortiz said. “I admire the goals of these individuals and believe they should be recognized.”

Ortiz and Vann say their projects gave them an insight into Denver history they had not previously known.

“I was lucky to find such a case within Denver and it has shown me all the complications of Denver history,” Ortiz says. “Interestingly, I conducted almost all my research at Penrose Library’s Special Collections, which houses the PHAC manuscript collection.”

Prior to her research, Vann says, she didn’t know Five Points was a thriving community in the 1920s — sort of a mini New Orleans.

“This history becomes all the more exciting with the reconstruction the Five Points is currently undergoing,” Vann says. “This is a very important time to go down and see this area before many of the local community and the mom and pop shops that are so much apart of this deep and rich history are forced to leave or shut down because of all the new construction coming in.”

Vann and Ortiz were two of 15 students who presented work at the conference, required by all majors.

History chair Ingrid Tague says the students are doing the same thing professional historians do, just on a smaller scale.

“They are identifying an intriguing historical question or problem and using primary source research to answer that question,” Tague says. “The idea is to make an original contribution to the field.”

Carol Helstosky, associate professor of history, organized the conference. She says Ortiz and Vann have written highly original theses that flesh out details of how different races in Denver integrated culturally.

“I see their work deepening our understanding of how the African-American and white communities related to each other in unexpected ways,” Helstosky says. “I think their work makes a substantial contribution to the public good.”

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