Pueblo County, Colorado
Contributed by Jean, Gracie, Phyllis and Karen.
Colorado Springs Gazette 3-19-2001 - Slavery Remembered - Pueblo Woman's Grandmother Was Bought, Sold - Pueblo - Think about the history of slavery in the United States and you might conjure up a mental picture of forlorn black field hands staring back at you from some pre-Civil War photograph. It is an uncomfortable image but one that seems safely put away in the distant past. Charity Collins, on the other hand, doesn't have to reach far to touch slavery. It has the voice and look of her grandmother - Laura Bell Johnson - who died in Pueblo in 1949 but who was born as someone's property on a slave plantation in Virginia in 1861. Collins, 82, said her grandmother grieved for what slavery cost her family. Brothers and sisters had died or been scattered by the cruel business of buying and selling people. Her chest was scarred from having been pushed into a fireplace as a child. "I don't think she took any pride in having been a slave," Collins said. "But she was tough and independent." Working all of her young life, Laura Bell Johnson lived in Oklahoma and Kansas before arriving in Gunnison in 1883. Her first husband was killed in a dance hall shooting that year, leaving her with an infant daughter, Bertha - who would become Collins' mother. Moving to Manitou Springs, the young woman met a black cowboy named William Johnson, and they moved to Pueblo, where they bought a house. Johnson obtained title to some land around Stone City, which is now part of the Fort Carson reservation. A few years later, they moved to another house, where Collins would be born in 1919. "My grandfather liked to raise dogs, and my grandmother wouldn't let him do it at the house, so he spent much of his time on his Stone City property," Collins said. Collins has a photograph of the couple. Johnson is smiling under a broad cowboy hat next to a slender, serious-looking Laura Bell. Both are holding several puppies. It looks like many other pioneer photographs of the Old West except the Johnsons were black. Collins said the photograph illustrates what she calls the "invisible" history of Pueblo's black community. Black families built businesses and churches, worked at the CF&I steel mill and sank their roots into Pueblo all through the 20th century, but their role was largely ignored for much of that time. Some of that invisibility was intentional, Collins explained, because Pueblo's black families did not want to attract attention from the white majority that might result in more racial prejudice. "We were taught to know our place, even though the prejudice here was more subtle," Collins said. The prejudice was there, though. Some restaurants and stores did not allow black people in and they were relegated to the balcony seats in movie theaters. It could be less subtle, too. When Collins was about 8 years old, someone set fire to a cross in the park across the street from the family's home. It was a hateful message that scared the family, she said. "I can remember my mother and grandmother putting their arms around us and just holding us," Collins said. "We never did find out who put it there." Collins' parents separated shortly after she was born. She and two brothers were raised by their grandmother and mother, Bertha Milton. The two women supported the family working as cooks and domestic help, although Collins' mother also taught music. "During the Depression, we didn't have much," Collins said, "But we were a loving family." Collins attended the old Irving School, Thatcher School and graduated from Centennial High School. "We were being trained to be secretaries and such, but that was a waste of time because those jobs weren't open to blacks at the time," she said. During World War II, Collins worked at the Hook Nursing School where she helped sew and repair military uniforms. Most of the workers were Hispanic women, she said. So what advice did her grandmother give for dealing with racial prejudice? Collins said the woman had a simple message for her family: "She always told us to remember that no one was better than we were." Despite racial barriers, Pueblo's black community enjoyed its own social life that included a network of local churches. Collins grew up attending, and still attends, the Eighth Street Missionary Baptist Church. Her grandmother was a devout woman, and the family often walked from their West 21st Street house to the church. Collins married Robert L. Collins in 1941. He worked at Pueblo Memorial Airport for 30 years. The couple had two daughters, Barbara and Beverly. There are now three grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren in the Collins family. "My grandmother had a dry sense of humor and she could look serious even when she was having fun," Collins said. "My husband didn't understand that at first and for the first year or so, he thought she didn't like him. I had to assure him she did." Collins said her grandmother was a forceful woman who could "clear the house with her temper." "When my girls were little and misbehaving, my grandmother would just reach out with her cane and reel them in," she laughed. One of those little girls, Beverly Collins Smith, said her great-grandmother left the family a rich legacy. Laura Bell Johnson was not only a former slave, she was apparently part Cherokee and an accomplished herbal-medicine maker. "I'm proud that I can trace my family back three generations in Colorado to this woman," Smith said. Picture Caption: Charity Collins holds old photos of her grandmother, Laura Bell Johnson. Born a slave in 1861, Johnson later moved to and married in Colorado, educating her children on the effects of prejudice.
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