Just hours into being sworn in as the latest round of 2017 legislators at the Colorado State Capitol, one trailblazing group already had a nickname: The Historic Eight.
Eight African American lawmakers (two in the senate and six in the house) were sworn in this legislative session – comprising the largest number of African Americans to ever serve in the Colorado Legislature.
“It feels great to be a part of that,” said Rep. James Coleman (D – House Dist. 7), who also happens to be the youngest of 100 legislators in the state house.
Coleman is 29 years old and knows that his election brings with it a lot of responsibility.
“In Africa, there’s a saying called Sankofa. It’s a bird that flies forwards while looking backwards,” Coleman said. “So it’s not forgetting where you’ve come from, but also looking forward to the new generation of leadership.”
In the House of Representatives, Coleman joins Rep. Jovan Melton (D – House Dist. 41), Rep. Leslie Herod (D – House Dist. 8), Rep. Dominique Jackson (D – House Dist. 14), Rep. Janet Buckner (D – House Dist. 40) and Rep. Tony Exum, Sr. (D – House Dist. 17).
Exum was part of the then-record-setting Historic Five in 2012. At that time, five was the highest number of black legislators ever elected to the state house.
Buckner’s husband, the late Rep. John Buckner, was also part of the Historic Five in 2012. He died while in office. His wife completed his term and, in 2016, won the seat on her own.
“My husband used to say if you don’t have someone at the table, then you’ll be on the menu. And that’s true,” Rep. Buckner said. “Because if you’re not at the table then you don’t have your voice heard.”
All of the members of the Historic Eight say their experiences help them to empathize and understand constituents who may feel under-represented. From young African American males to single mothers and African American members of the LGBTQ community, they’re all represented by members of the Historic 8.
“You bring to this job your own personal history but an empathy and understanding of the kinds of struggles that people actually face. And I think it has a great deal to do with the kinds of legislation you bring forward,” Jackson said.
“We want to represent the voices for those that don’t have a voice. And there’s a lot of people in our state that don’t have a voice. It doesn’t matter what their ethnicity is,” said Senator Angela Williams (D – Senate Dist. 33).
She serves alongside Senator Rhonda Fields (D – Senate Dist. 29), a former state representative who was recently elected to the senate.
“Now that we have eight people of color-- African Americans-- serving under the dome, I think that gives hope and opportunity for other people to say ‘I can be just like a Senator Fields or one of the other house representatives.’ I think that’s inspirational to many,” Fields said.
Since 1895, only 36 African Americans have served as state legislators in Colorado. Thirty one of them have been Democrats. Five of them have been Republicans. Exum hopes that, one day, diversity in the State Capitol will become so common-place that is almost unnoticed.
“You get tired of being the first,” Exum Sr. said “There needs to be stop being such an emphasis on the first. And this should just be a part of society.”
At the same time, the members of the Historic Eight know that it took a lot to get to this place in history. They attribute their success to the trailblazers who came before them.
“We have so many strong African American leaders who have served this state. And we owe a great debt of gratitude to them,” Herod said.
With seats on 11 out of 13 state house committees, the Historic Eight hope they can be the next inspiration for future generations.
“This is something that’s special,” Melton said. “This is something the community cares about.”