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Mapping the invisible lines of generations now past

Published on -9/4/2013, 9:21 AM

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How quickly time goes by. My heart still remembers so many of the yesterdays when I was growing up.

Why, I even remember way back when I went to grade school. What caused all this nostalgia? All this was brought back into my memory as I watched the TV and listened to Martin Luther King Jr.'s entire "I Have a Dream" speech. I lived through those days, and I also lived through the days long before his speech.

I grew up in Denver, our home only four blocks from what was called the Mason-Dixon Line. This evidently was created as a barrier against Americans of color moving further into east Denver. We did not have a family car, and when we needed to go downtown, we rode the No. 28 streetcar, which was only two blocks from our house on Gaylord Street. Later, they tore up the metal tracks and replaced that transport with buses. (I think they now wish they had kept the streetcars.)

After we rode west for four blocks, we passed High Street. It surely looked no different than the other streets, but this was the invisible line called Mason-Dixon Line, which ran north and south. Each stop after this, people of color boarded the bus. There was no different seating for them such as in the south. We all just sat where there was an empty seat. The bus then went on and through what was then and now called Five Points. This was an interesting place with much activity, which we viewed from our window. Little did I know of its origin and history.

In the 1880s, this was a very prominent section of Denver and originated as a neighborhood of white professional and businessmen. The streetcar I used to ride (not back then in the 1880s, please) was one of the first cable streetcar lines running along tracks with the cable above the car. Businesses tended to follow the track area to serve the white residents. As the days progressed to the turn of the 1900s, African-American families moved into the area as the city grew to the east to new neighborhoods. Between 1911 and 1929, housing developments with more modern conveniences developed in the east resulting in a population shift, which brought an increased number of black residents to the Five Points neighborhood. This was an area with many black businesses, newspapers, social activities, sports and music. It was one of the most desirable black communities in the West; however, the residents wanted the opportunity for better homes, economic factors, education and jobs.

The Black American West Museum, founded in 1966 in Denver, has a collection of research materials related to the Five Points neighborhood and African-American history in the West. As I read through its material, I found no reference to the Mason-Dixon Line I had heard of growing up other than the words "de facto segregation." In about 1949, that boundary was declared unconstitutional and the population once again shifted to the east. By the 1970s, Five Points had become a run-down, violent area.

Today, Five Points has received a historic district designation and state preservation money for restoration for historical buildings that played an important role in that area's history. The goal of city leaders and preservationists is to restore the neighborhood, recognizing its significant role in the life of the city of Denver and the African-American history.

Recalling my days growing up, I was unaware people were treated so differently other than just knowing "this was the way it was."

In my class in grade school, four blocks east of our home, we had only one person who was black. I don't remember noticing any difference in how any of us were treated. As time went on, I attended junior high and high schools that were definitely of mixed races. Life just went on as it always had. It was what it was. I had a good education at both schools, had to walk or run a long distance to get to school but did not realize people were treated so differently other places and in the South.

During dinner with friends recently, we were talking about those days of racial unrest.

Even though we lived in Kansas in the 1950s and not in the South, we still had memories of where we were and prejudices we encountered. Later at home, I ask myself, "Where am I now? How have I changed? What is different in our world? I know that problems are lurking that can send us back into a troubled past ... changes in voting rights ... First Amendment challenges against our religious freedom ... others."

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Day is past, but his words still echo in my heart, with hope for the future for us all. I apologize I can only quote a few of his words:

"This is our hope, and this is the faith ... With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

"And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true."

... And so let freedom ring

"From every mountainside, let freedom ring. ... Let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Ruth Moriarity is a member of The Hays Daily News Generations advisory group.

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