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Black History Month: African Americans migrated west looking for new opportunities in the 1860s

For African-Americans, the west offered freedom from slavery and the violence of the south.

James Pierson Beckwourth was an explorer and frontiersman born in Virginia in 1805. He was one of the few African American mountain men on the western frontier.

“He was enslaved in the South and escaped slavery. He traveled all over the West,” said Terri Gentry of the Black American West Museum. “Mr. Beckwourth was a fur trader, trapper, scout, co-founded Pueblo Colorado…he has a pass named for him between California and Nevada.”

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Beckwourth’s story of blacks migrating west is one of many told by Gentry, who gives tours of the museum and heritage center in Five Points. Stories like the ‘Exodusters,' which described former slaves who left the south after Reconstruction ended in 1877.

“There were more than 200 black settlements scattered throughout the West," said Gentry. “They were either small towns or little settlements that were created by black folks to change their lives and get away from the violence and the things they were experiencing in the south.”

Credit: KUSA

Towns like Nicodeumus, Kansas and Dearfield, Colorado.

“We have Dearfield, Colorado which was later on in 1910 here in northeastern Colorado just east of Greeley,” Gentry said. “We had little townships just kind of scattered all over…there were more than 25 settlements in Colorado and then more than 200 throughout the west.”

Gentry said the western migration of blacks made a big impact on the country with the transition of territories in the west becoming states.

“There were opportunities that people hoped for in the west,” said Gentry. “By 1910 there were probably about 4,500 black folks in Denver and a predominate amount centered in this Five Points neighborhood.”

Credit: KUSA

The museum helps tell the stories of past of African-Americans who were looking for a new life on the new frontier.

“All of these histories, all of these perspectives that we had going on and all of these thousands of stories that people can tell us about living here in the Five Points and Whittier neighborhoods,” said Gentry. “I want them to see the museum as a celebration of our history.” For more information about the museum and heritage center, click here.

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