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Aurora honors local Black history in names of new magnet schools

Two new schools remember Charles Burrell and Clara Brown for their impacts on Colorado arts and entrepreneurship.

AURORA, Colo. — In order to reflect on history, one must first know the names of those who created it.

"I think that is a really big deal to name a school after someone who is still with us," Kyle Jones said.

Jones teaches music at Aurora Central High School. Next fall, he will teach at the Charles Burrell Visual and Performing Arts Campus, a new magnet school that will serve older students at Aurora Central High School and kindergarten through eighth-grade students at Peoria Elementary School.

"He has been an integral part of the sound that's developed over the last 60, 70 years," Jones said.

Burrell is a Black bassist born in Ohio who moved to Colorado.

"I started when I was 12 years old," Burrell said. "Started playing music, and that was the beginning. I never stopped until I was about 85. So, that was not bad."

Burrell was so good, in fact, he broke racial barriers. He was dubbed the "Jackie Robinson of Music" after he signed with the San Francisco Symphony in 1959.

"I think I cried for 2 or 3 weeks after that because I was so flabbergasted," he said. "They treated me like a real human being."

RELATED: 2 new Aurora schools honor prominent Black Coloradans

Credit: Photo Courtesy of Burrell Arts Team
Aurora Public Schools is naming its new arts magnet campus after Charles Burrell, second from left, a classical and jazz bass player who was the first person of color to perform with the Denver Symphony in 1949.

He also anchored the culture of jazz music in Five Points in Denver for decades. But, after all of that, the 101-year-old said he is proud to be honored by Aurora Public Schools (APS).

"As a matter of fact, it was the most shocking thing that I can ever remember," he said.

From the younger students at Peoria Elementary to the seniors on the Aurora Central campus, students will have a new dedicated arts pathway inspired by Burrell.

"They are going to be able to see not only the person that this school is named for, but a successful artist, someone who's been around and been influential in what they're dealing with every day," Jones said.

Burrell said he is humbled.

"I'm thankful it might help to ingratiate a lot of youngsters coming in to know they can go someplace," Burrell said.

Below: Music legend Charlie Burrell celebrates his 100th birthday, aired in October 2020:

There are also more places they can go. APS is opening two new magnet schools next school year to attract students from across the district into programs with a specific focus. In addition to the school named after Burrell, a second one is being created by Laura Burke.

"It's kinda terrifying and exciting, which is my favorite combination," said Burke, who will be principal of the Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy.

"As a former enslaved woman from Virginia, Clara Brown came to Colorado during the Gold Rush and really recognized the opportunity to open up a laundry business," Burke said.

Brown was not only a pioneering, successful merchant, she brought those who were freed from slavery to Colorado to start a new life. Burke said she wants to create a school culture teaching kids to live like Brown.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Colorado Women's Hall of Fame
Aurora Public Schools is naming its new entrepreneurial magnet school after Clara Brown, a former enslaved woman from Virginia who was Colorado's first Black settler and a prosperous entrepreneur.

"What that really means is that we're going to be instilling an entrepreneurial mindset in students to really persevere, recognize opportunities, take risks," she said.

Brown's name will hang over what is currently Wheeling Elementary School. Burrell's name will be posted at Peoria Elementary and Aurora Central High School.

Burke said she hopes these school names will mean the roles of Brown and Burrell in Colorado's Black history will never be forgotten.

"Everyone that we've talked to is just so behind this idea that we're keeping her legacy alive and teaching a whole new generation about who she was," Burke said.

APS is enrolling students in both programs for the start of the 2022-23 school year. If you want to find out more, click here.

Jessica Brown, director for the Charles Burrell Visual and Performing Arts Campus, said that shaping students in the arts or in business can be done with perspective and appreciation for the past.

"For students to hear that history and know that history," Brown said. "For students to see that and to read about that is incredibly powerful."

Burrell said he hopes his legacy will be empowering.

"I'm proud of being a person. I'm proud of being a Negro," Burrell said.

RELATED: This Denver-based organization is helping Black women start their own businesses

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