Colorado and New Challenges
WHEN CHUCK WAS ASSIGNED to manage Honeywell’s operations in Denver, he had already worked at Honeywell for nearly eighteen years, and his advancement had been slow by comparison with his white peers. Chuck’s management and problem-solving abilities were well known and respected within the company, and he now had responsibilities that involved training managers. I had served on the Board of Regents for three years and had resolved to resign my position to move to Colorado. I was honored with the same benefits that all full-term regents received. A few of my white feminist friends questioned my decision, as it was inconsistent with their view of women’s progress. In contrast, I always viewed the Black struggle as a people’s struggle—not the struggle of a single gender—and even though my election to the Board had been historic, it never occurred to me that the position had more value than my family.
In November 1974, our family prepared to move to Denver. Patrice was in her sophomore year at Fisk, so the move would not affect her. Josie was completing ninth grade and at the end of her junior high experience. Norrene, however, was in her senior year of high school; I did not want the move to interfere with her graduation, so I contacted the superintendents of the two school districts involved, and we were able to make arrangements between school systems to ensure that Norrene would earn the credits she needed in Denver to graduate on time and be able to return to Minnesota to march with her classmates at Bloomington Jefferson High School.
We sold the house in Bloomington and in Denver bought a beautiful home on a quiet street in the Hampden South neighborhood, southeast of downtown. It was an ethnically mixed neighborhood near several integrated housing developments and townhouses. Our house had three bedrooms, four bathrooms, three fireplaces including one in the master bedroom, a two-car garage, and a swimming pool. Somehow I came to be in charge of looking after the swimming pool even though I was not the family swimmer. I had not been fond of swimming since my childhood when I once had a scare with drowning while out crabbing with my mother in Texas. But Chuck swam and the girls had taken lessons in Minnesota and were excellent swimmers.
One of our neighbors and a schoolmate of the girls, Michael Winslow, distinguished himself in our new neighborhood with his ability to make all manner of sounds with his voice. He would sit out in his family’s open garage across the street from our house and practice making sounds loud enough to be heard throughout the whole neighborhood: sirens, cards, guns, you name it. His abilities earned him a career. Later, we learned that Michael had made a successful television and movie career using his talents on The Gong Show and in movies like Spaceballs and the Police Academy films.
Soon after we got settled in Denver, Chuck and the girls got into their routines of work and school, and I went about the business of taking care of the house, preparing meals, and walking our German shepherd, Enye, around the neighborhood. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have meetings and other obligations, and I found myself free to indulge in interests like my love of skiing. Chuck and I had taken some free ski lessons at Hyland Lake Park while we still lived in Minnesota, and we had also taken a ski trip to Aspen years earlier. We had learned about the national Black Ski Club and the many Black skiers who gathered each year in Colorado. It was on that Aspen trip that we had once mistakenly caught the wrong chairlift, one that went to the top of a high mountain. As the lift continued its climb, we recognized that the slope we were heading for was much too advanced for us. I was so scared when we got off at the top. The sky was getting dark and the snow was blowing all around us. I didn’t know how we were going to get down, and I just knew that we were going to die up there. After a few moments Chuck, being the engineer, determined that we would just take it slowly and cut a wide path back and forth down the steep slope, stopping as we needed. Our descent took a couple of hours, but to my relief we made it down the mountain safely.
I also learned that a family I had known well in Houston now lived in Denver, and we reconnected. These friends regularly invited me to go with them to the parks; the husband was on the ski patrol, and it was his job to go around to the public parks and check on the conditions of the ski routes. The three of us would head out in the mornings to places like Winter Park, to the west of Denver. He would go off to work, and his wife and I would take our skis and play. Having grown up with relatively consistent weather in Houston, I loved the change in seasons, and the sunlight in Colorado had a magical quality, especially during the winter months. The opportunity to ski—and often—felt like a dream come true.
Otherwise, it seems that my being at home as much as I was in those early days in Denver proved to be more of an adjustment for the family than the overall move from Minnesota itself. Eventually, Norrene and Josie sat me down and said, “Mother, please get busy. You are driving us crazy. You pick up and wash our clothes, keep our rooms clean, serve meals on time. And you want to spend time talking when we get home!” This was not at all what they were used to, and they were serious in their encouragement that I get out of the house and engage with my new community.
Soon after this conversation with the girls, I met Arie Taylor. Arie had become the first African American woman to be elected to the Colorado State House of Representatives in 1972 and would eventually go on to serve six terms. Arie had lived in Denver since 1958, was very knowledgeable, had deep relationships, and had developed a reputation as a fierce advocate for the community. She had a forceful and direct style and was clearly committed to improving the lives of Black people and women. I liked her immediately and began to go with her to meetings in the community.
One day, Arie and I went to a nursery school in Denver and she told me about the Era of Reducing Child Poverty, day-care legislation that had been introduced in the Colorado Senate by State Senator George L. Brown. This legislation was part of a national movement to enhance the quality of education and expand the rights of minorities, people with disabilities, children, and youth. George and Arie needed help lobbying for the bill in the Colorado legislature, and I discovered that my experience lobbying in Minnesota was suddenly relevant here in my new home. I volunteered and found myself once again in the halls of a state capitol working to improve the lives of people and community.
Arie introduced me to Senator Brown, a handsome, soft-spoken Black man who exuded a niceness that reminded me of Minnesotans. A Democrat who had been in the legislature for nineteen years, Senator Brown had trained as a journalist and directed the Denver Housing Authority prior to taking office. Our views aligned on many issues. In 1975, in the middle of his fifth senate term, Senator Brown decided to run for lieutenant governor. I volunteered with his team and offered additional campaign strategies that had been effective in Minnesota. Eventually, George asked me to become his campaign manager.
As a newcomer to the state, volunteering to work on the campaign, I felt very welcome and encouraged. This encouragement and support came from people who had worked with Senator Brown all his political life. Our campaign was successful, and George became the first Black person elected lieutenant governor in the United States since Reconstruction. (Incidentally, five African American lieutenant governors were elected during the years of Reconstruction, 1863–1877.) Within an hour, Mervyn M. Dymally added to this accomplishment by becoming the first Black lieutenant governor in the State of California.
In organizing his office as lieutenant governor, George appointed me to be his chief of staff. He continued his campaign’s focus on diversity, equity, and justice, and this fit perfectly with my administrative experience and history. My job was to do everything that I could to support the implementation of George’s agenda as lieutenant governor, which included promoting the community’s awareness of and connection with his work.
I am pleased to say that the staff in our office was very diverse. Unfortunately, this diversity was not reflected in the physical halls of the capitol, in the state’s vendor contracts, or in Colorado lawmakers’ understanding of the diverse communities living within the state. During my tenure, I helped to convene the Minority Art Committee to introduce artistic representations of Colorado’s Native, African American, Asian, and Latino communities at the state capitol. To chair this committee, I recruited Robert Ragland, a Black Coloradan visual artist whom I had met through my work organizing a Delta annual convention in Denver. I have always appreciated Bob Ragland’s work and to this day have several of his paintings on the walls of my condominium. During George’s tenure, the committee succeeded in commissioning a bust by the accomplished sculptor Ed Dwight of the lieutenant governor, in mounting several exhibits, and in hanging works by minority artists in the state capitol.
Soon after we set up office, we learned of the challenges that minority businesses had in getting contracts with the State of Colorado for services like road construction, repair of state buildings, and bridge building. There had been little transparency up until then in sharing the basic processes for applying for contracts with the state, and there were no examples of minority businesses receiving contracts. In response, our office organized a conference to assist minority firms in negotiating the system for securing contracts. This two-day conference brought in representatives from around Colorado to discuss the type of work that was needed as well as the specifics around the bidding and application processes for these contracts. As a result of this conference and other actions taken by our office, many minority contractors were better able to compete and succeed in doing business with the state.
Marilyn Youngbird, a young Native American woman and tribal member of the Arikara and Hidatsa Nations, came to work in the office of the lieutenant governor. Marilyn carried the wisdom of her culture behind her quiet confidence and contagious smile. At the time, state legislators knew very little about the plight of American Indians in Colorado and in fact were in the process of being defrauded by a white imposter who called himself Billy Jack. He dressed complete with a belt, knife, and other Native symbols, and he spoke with an accent as he convinced legislators to allocate financial support to an Indian survival program that he would manage. Marilyn spoke to the legislature and was instrumental in exposing Billy Jack as a fraud. We were alarmed when he subsequently came to our office threatening to kill Marilyn. We notified security and spent many days behind locked entry doors. After this incident, the governor and lieutenant governor created a new Commission on Indian Affairs and recommended Marilyn to head it. In her work as commissioner, Marilyn was able to bring the suffering of Native tribes in Colorado before lawmakers and to advocate for the allocation of funds in support of restoring and strengthening the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute tribes.
In those days, capitol security had advised public officials and their staff to be on the lookout for anything that seemed suspicious around the building. Early one morning, I arrived to open the office and found a strange package on the receptionist’s desk. The package looked official with a postal label but the return address on the box was unclear. When the receptionist and other staff members began to arrive, they looked the package over, but no one knew how the box had arrived at the office or anything about it. I decided to call security and in short order a security guard came to the office. We stood at a distance as he peeled back the brown paper top of the box. There was a quiet release of pressure from within the box, and nails, shredded paper, and pieces of glass sprang through the opening and spread over the surface of the desk. The box had clearly been rigged to hurt the person who opened it, but thankfully the security guard was not harmed. The guard gathered up the box and its malevolent contents and took it out of the office. The members of our staff looked at each other in disbelief and began talking, consoling one another. All through the incident, I had been worried about the staff and felt the weight of my responsibility for their safety. What if someone had been hurt? I was so thankful that we had received warnings from security. I felt a deep sense of relief that we had followed protocol and that no one had been injured.
Early in his campaign, I received a call at our office notifying us that presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was planning to visit Denver. At this point in his campaign, Carter arrived with just one staff person and no fanfare. We knew very little about Carter then, just that he was a peanut farmer, the governor of Georgia, and was considered a long shot to win. Both the lieutenant governor and I were scheduled for other commitments during the time of his visit, so I asked State Representative Wellington Webb if he would be willing to meet with the candidate and help familiarize him with the political landscape in the state. Wellington was a native of Denver and very politically astute. I believe that the two of them hit it off, because Wellington went on to head Carter’s campaign in Colorado. After winning the election, Carter asked Wellington to serve as his regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Looking back, I must say that the racism and controversies that I experienced while serving with Lieutenant Governor Brown exposed me to how white supremacy could be expressed in politics. As the first Black person to hold statewide office in Colorado, George did not have an easy time. From the beginning, Governor Richard Lamm seemed reluctant to have George on the ticket—even though George had won his seat in the statewide primary election. In Colorado, the governor is elected in a separate campaign from the lieutenant governor. Entering his position, George had a chilly reception from Lamm, and they did not get along. In addition, George was under constant scrutiny while in his position and was twice accused of mismanaging funds for his office. As a member of his staff, in another one of the most frightening experiences of my life, I was deposed as part of a grand jury investigation. In this case, the accounting discrepancies in question were determined to be clerical errors related to his travel expenses, and no charges were filed. Later, in 1978, the governor accused George of overspending his department budget by $10,000 and withheld his paycheck. Brown sued the governor and the case was ultimately settled—but as his chief of staff, I learned to pay very close attention to the details of our budgets and expenditures. In spite of the conflicts with Governor Lamm and the petty and serious ways in which racism was manifest in our experiences while in office, we were able to accomplish many of our goals, especially in creating a welcoming and responsive environment for diverse communities. Unfortunately, the experience greatly frustrated George Brown. He served only one four-year term as lieutenant governor and did not seek public office again.
I met many passionately engaged people during my time working at the Colorado State Capitol and living in Denver, people who not only generously shared their knowledge and experience of the state with me but also inspired my hope and expanded my commitment to the struggle of Black people. We shared a belief in the strength of our African American heritage and the possibility of justice, and we were all working in various ways to uplift, educate, and politically engage our community.
One of my dearest friends in Denver was a woman named Rachel Noel. She was a Fiskite, a Delta, and the first African American to serve on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. In 1968, Rachel had presented a resolution to the school board to develop a plan for the integration of the Denver city school district. It took two years for the Noel Resolution to pass, and during that time Rachel and her family regularly received threatening phone calls and mail. While I lived in Denver, Rachel was elected to the University of Colorado Board of Regents; she and I taught together at Metropolitan State College of Denver. We co-taught Black history and the course on Black families in white America that I had developed at the University of Minnesota. I have fond memories of sitting in front of the bay window at Rachel’s home planning our curriculum, discussing Black history and culture, and conferring about the development and introduction of African American curricula at academic institutions. She was an important confidant for me and we discussed the racism and many other experiences I had while serving in George Brown’s office.
I had other friendships that were important sustenance for me during my years in Colorado. After I had completed my service in the lieutenant governor’s office, a good friend of George Brown’s named Ann Nickerson and I began spending more time together. Although Ann was not political, she was a social worker, and her work with and commitment to children and families in Colorado gifted her with deep insights that she generously shared with me.
Larry Borum was someone I had known in Minnesota when he served at the St. Paul Urban League, and we reconnected after he moved to Colorado to take up the position of president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver. Our time together in Denver always felt like a joyous family reunion, a transplanted piece of Minnesota. Larry went on to head Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations, and he persisted as a strong community advocate for Black teachers and students in Colorado.
I also met Gloria Travis Tanner through a family relative shortly after we moved to Denver. Gloria would eventually become the first African American woman elected to the Colorado state senate. Gloria was a Delta who became a trusted adviser for me, and an important sounding board in helping me understand the politics and culture in Colorado.
In the 1970s, Black women were busy establishing African American political and cultural institutions in Denver, and there were two organizations in particular that impressed and engaged me. In 1977, Colorado Black Women for Political Action organized to meaningfully engage Black people and Black women in particular in political processes. I was honored when they invited me to speak at their first luncheon. This organization involved many of the people with whom I had worked closely while in the lieutenant governor’s office, people like Regis Groff, who would become the second Black state senator in Colorado. Regis was a respected educator, very rational, and we always relied on him to provide us with alternative perspectives on issues being discussed.
In Denver’s art scene at that time, I was so moved by the work of dancer Cleo Parker Robinson. When I lived in the city, her dance studio was still fledgling, but the quality and impact of her artistry and her commitment to uplifting the African American community through dance made a lasting impact on me. Her nonprofit dance company has continued in its stated mission to teach “generations of families the beauty, fun, and healing power of dance” for nearly fifty years.
Anna Jo Haynes and her daughter Allegra “Happy” Haynes were also active in Colorado Black Women for Political Action. Anna Jo had been an old friend and adviser to George Brown, and Happy Haynes had become a staff assistant in our office soon after her graduation from college. The lieutenant governor was interested in establishing an open-door policy to encourage community members to bring their concerns to our office. To advance this initiative, we created the position of ombudsman, and Happy was promoted to this new role. Happy went on to become a member of the Colorado State Legislature, to serve as deputy mayor of Denver in 2017, and she continues to provide important counsel to Denver’s mayors and public officials to this day.
In Colorado, I found my leadership opportunities continuing to expand, both with organizations that I had long known like Delta Sigma Theta, and with new organizations like National Public Radio. The Deltas put my organizational skills to good use when I became the coordinator for the 34th Delta Sigma Theta National Convention in August 1977. This event was held in Denver and featured Natalie Cole as entertainment. It was an important demonstration of the creativity, intelligence, and strength of the Black community in Colorado. That same year, I was invited to become the first Black woman to join the board of National Public Radio. I had been an early subscriber to public radio in Minnesota and was pleased to have the opportunity to serve on this national board under the leadership of Frank Mankiewicz, alongside Alex Haley, Bill Moyers, and others.
While my engagements in my Colorado community developed and deepened, at home Chuck and I were becoming more distant from one another. In our first year in Colorado, Norrene graduated and headed off to Spelman College. Josie graduated from high school in 1976 and left for college at Harvard. Chuck and I had always thought that when the girls left home, we would have more time together, but instead we both ended up filling the space created by the girls’ departures with more work and other commitments. Chuck was always supportive of my crazy lifestyle and a dedicated father to the girls. As we noticed that we weren’t choosing to spend more time with each other, Chuck and I had many private conversations, trying to think through what was happening in our marriage. In reflecting on our life together, Chuck wondered what more one could want: we had been very successful at raising our children, establishing a comfortable home and life, and were even good friends to one another. Still, I recognized that I did not feel cherished or loved romantically in our marriage. And even though Chuck may not have been fully satisfied in our relationship, he could not rationalize ending it. Ultimately, I could no longer deny the dissatisfactions that I felt—I believed there had to be something more and registered the need to make a change.
This was a very difficult time for me. I was not of a generation that sought outside counsel for private matters, and I had not grown up in an environment where I could talk about these things with other people. I had no idea that other people faced similar challenges in their relationships and that what Chuck and I experienced was actually not unusual. At that time, I was also not aware of the concept of stages of growth in personal development or in relationships. Years later, I read the work of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and found tremendous resonance with her ideas of how human beings move through developmental stages, growing and changing over their lifespan as part of a natural process. This insight was really helpful for me in making some sense of what had happened in my relationship with Chuck.
After a trial separation, Chuck and I would finalize our divorce in 1982. Chuck was always very fair and took care of all the details. I worried most that I was disappointing my children. Whether the girls were vocal about it or not at the time, I do not believe that they truly understood my choice. Similarly, some aspects of what happened in my marriage remain a mystery even to me. Who can say what would have happened if I had held on to the relationship? At the time, I felt certain that staying was not an option. As it was, I chose to leave and go where my spirit and instincts took me. It is true that my choice for growth involved pain and loss, but it also ushered me into new possibilities and a deeper experience of my own self. For this, I am thankful.