Column: Black history runs long and deep, even in Summit County

I have a confession to make. When I was a teacher, I routinely botched teaching Black history.

That isn’t to say I didn’t teach it accurately, but I don’t think I understood enough to teach it well. For many teachers, each February provides the opportunity to pull out Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth. You dust off the posters, watch a few videos and put them away until the following February when you need them again.

I was definitely guilty of this. As a teacher in Detroit, I could add a few bits of local flavor. The city was a major stop on the Underground Railroad, the Black population dramatically increased during the Great Migration at the start of the 20th century, and Motown was a massive influence on the musical world.

For a lot of my students, Black history in their northwest Detroit neighborhood didn’t start until the white folks moved out in the 1960s and ’70s, and the city’s population became a majority Black.

While I was still in the city, but no longer a teacher, I read “Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution” by William Bunge. In the book, Bunge describes the known human history of a single Detroit neighborhood from the 1800s to 1970s.

I’ve heard it was heralded as a groundbreaking work in the field of human geography, but for me, what was fascinating was that it was an in-depth look at the 1-square-mile area where I (and my students) lived. He described how forests gave way to farms and the eventual takeover of the city, and he talked of how there were still a few small spots where the forest managed to hold out into the 1970s.

More importantly for me, Bunge talked about how Black people were a part of the entire history of the neighborhood. From a former slave who homesteaded about a half-mile east of my house in the early 20th century to a rope rigger who lived a few blocks away and helped hoist a statue on top of a monument at the Catholic college around the corner from me in the early 1900s.

For me, it helped shift my perspective on Black history, especially where I lived.

If I were to go back to education in Detroit, I’d still make sure my kids knew about the “big names” of Black history, but I’d also tell them the story of James Kanada, who grew crops south of where the University of Detroit is now, and Roy Turner who was responsible for putting the Mary statue on its podium at Marygrove College.

For me, these stories are a reminder that most of history consists of ordinary people doing their best and that Black lives can be found woven throughout all of our national and local histories if we take a moment to look for it.

This week, I learned a lot more about the life of Barney Lancelot Ford, a prominent man in Breckenridge and Colorado’s early history who played an important role in ensuring that the state was admitted into the union with voting rights for people of color as a part of its Constitution.

Ford is a person whose contributions to the early development of the state merit discussion even outside of the context of Black History Month. Through his story, I also learned about Bob Lott, a Black man who bought Ford’s Breckenridge restaurant and stayed in Summit County until his death in 1913.

When Lott died, his friends pooled their resources and erected a monument in the “pauper section of Valley Brook Cemetery,” one of very few such monuments in that section of the cemetery.

Lott may not be notable for any specific contribution to the history of the county, let alone the state, but he serves as a reminder that Black lives have been, and continue to be, a part of our local history.

Did you know the first Black person to be elected as the mayor of any town or city in Colorado was Ada Belle Huff Evans, who served as Fairplay’s mayor from 1974-78? That’s just 20 miles south of Breckenridge.

As we look at the tapestry of our communities, it can be easy to assume that much of our diversity came later on, but people like Ford and Lott show that Black history threads its way throughout every community, even in a place as small and remote as Summit County.

Steven Josephson is the magazines and arts and entertainment editor at the Summit Daily News.

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