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Preserving our local black history

DiverseCity

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As a child, Candice McKnight would lie on her grandmother’s bed listening to her tell stories of her ancestors. As a teenager, she would interview her grandfather, recording the conversations when he allowed it. As an adult, her passion for her family’s history has led her all over the country.

In 2010, when Candice was in her 40s and curious about her lighter skin color, she traveled to St. Clair, Missouri, to see the rock that her mother’s great-grandmother, a French indentured servant, was sold on in the late 1700s. It’s now held by the Franklin County Historical Society.

A third-generation Springs native, Candice founded the African-American Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs in 2000. In 2004, the Genealogical Society merged with the Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs, forming the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs, which Candice has run since.

“My idea of having a ball is research,” she says, “because you’re meeting those people [from generations past], and it gives you chills.”

The Genealogical Society is tucked away in a corner of the Westside Community Center, a 100-year-old former school. At the door, you are greeted by Candice and a dressed mannequin of her father’s great-grandmother, Lucy Mae Mack Vance, who was 8 years old when the Freedom Bell rang.

Vance, who was black, came to the Springs from the McKinney plantation in Belton, Texas. As a kid, Candice heard many family stories about brothel houses that were run by Vance and then-police chief Irvin “Dad” Bruce.

Candace obviously inherited the art of storytelling. When making an introduction, her infectious excitement embodies the spirit of the person she’s presenting. She often dresses up as Vance and performs skits for different local groups in the community.

“I just don’t want our history to die,” she says. “I am dedicated to [keeping it] with every fiber of my being.”

Our African-American ancestors made unimaginable sacrifices to build this country, often paying with their lives. They were viewed as property, and some of their names were never recorded.
As you walk through the Society’s space, the floor squeaks. The room is packed with collections, each focused on the contributions of African-Americans to our city and the Pikes Peak region. There are tributes to police officers and firefighters, the Brown Bombers, and the Tuskegee Airmen. (The Springs’ Marion Rodgers, one of the last airmen, died in December 2017.)

One display honors Ron Stallworth, a former undercover officer with the CSPD, famous for becoming a KKK member in the late ’70s, quite the trick considering he’s black. Stallworth documented his experience in the book Black Klansman. Spike Lee’s producing a movie based on it, due out this year.

The displays are a sampling of Candice’s collection from her travels — if they’d fit, she’d display more of the archives she keeps in three storage units. One of her favorite trips was to Utah, home to the world’s largest genealogical records library. “There’s a room you can go in, type in the year of your birth on the computer, and watch the scene around you change to that year.”

Genealogy and history offer a fascinating mix of art and science that bridges the past and present. But for African-Americans, uncovering the stories and injustices suffered by our ancestors can invoke a wide range of emotion, from joy to rage and everything in between. Take this account: According to John Stokes Holley’s history of local black people in the 1940s, The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region, “Blacks were allowed to swim only on the far side of Prospect Lake, where there were no dressing rooms or lifeguards.”

But, as George Santayana once famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s why it’s so important that locals have access to books like Holley’s and Stallworth’s. (Both are available in the Genealogy Society’s 2,000-book library. Holley’s book is also available at the Pikes Peak Library District, and for purchase at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.) It’s also important that communities recognize that, as Pioneers Museum Director Matt Mayberry puts it, “museums are mirrors and they ought to reflect the community.”

For over 23 years, Candice has offered this important mirror, passionately sharing the contributions of local African-Americans to American history. In September, she will also host a series of affordable genealogical workshops for beginners to help others who are interested in finding their roots.

As Candice writes, “Our Ancestors are calling, they want to be found, there is a story to be told, on how things went down.”

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