Colorado's Black History and The Great Outdoors

The Aspire Team
March 15, 2024
A YWCA summer camp for girls called Camp Nizhoni took place at Lincoln Hills from 1924-1945. Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

The outdoors are for everyone: always have been, always will be. However, for hundreds of years, countless barriers from access to gear to cost to exclusionary policies have prevented people from marginalized groups from accessing the wilderness. Colorado is no exception to this, and while progress has been made in recent decades, we still have a long way to go before equal access is achieved. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, we must acknowledge how progress is being made and who has changed the narrative of outdoor accessibility for Coloradoans of all walks of life. Specifically, we’re going to discuss the Black Colroadoans who have broken barriers and paved the way for a more equal and equitable outdoor community. 

The story begins long before Colorado became a state in 1876. Black American pioneers played significant roles in the exploration and settlement of the American West, including the Colorado territory. Despite facing systemic racism and discrimination, Black explorers ventured westward, seeking freedom, opportunity, and a chance to carve out their destinies on the frontier.

One notable figure in this narrative is Clara Brown, affectionately known as "Aunt Clara." Born into slavery in Virginia in 1800, Brown gained her freedom in 1856 and eventually made her way to Colorado during the Gold Rush era. Despite the harsh conditions and challenges of the frontier, Brown became one of the first Black settlers in Colorado and a successful entrepreneur. She used her wealth to support other Black Colorodans, fund churches, and contribute to her community's growth.

Clara Brown, 1875-1880?. Denver Public Library Special Collections.

As Colorado transitioned from a territory to a state, the influx of Black migrants continued. Many settled in Denver and other urban areas, but others ventured into the wilderness, drawn by the promise of land, opportunity, and the freedom to explore the great outdoors. These early migrants established homesteads, ranches, and communities, leaving an enduring legacy that shaped Colorado's landscape and culture.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black outdoor enthusiasts defied societal norms and racial barriers to engage in activities such as hunting, fishing, and camping. Despite facing segregation and exclusion from certain recreational spaces, Black Coloradans found ways to connect with nature, often forming their own outdoor clubs and organizations.

One group was known as the Colorado Mountain Club's "Negro Mountain Club," established in the 1920s. This pioneering organization provided opportunities for Black individuals to explore Colorado's mountains, learn outdoor skills, and foster a sense of camaraderie. Although short-lived, the Negro Mountain Club laid the foundation for future generations of Black outdoor enthusiasts and advocates.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought significant strides in the fight for equality, including access to outdoor spaces. Federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped dismantle segregation and discrimination, opening doors for African Americans to participate in outdoor recreation fully.

In Colorado, organizations like Outdoor Afro and the African American Hiking for Colorado group continue to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors. These grassroots initiatives provide opportunities for Black individuals and families to connect with nature, participate in outdoor activities, and build a supportive community.

Members of Vibe Tribe Adventures, an organization founded in Colorado to encourage Black women to participate in outdoor excursions, hike through Bear Creek Regional Park on Oct. 24 in Colorado Springs. Kevin Mohatt for KHN.

Today, many Black Colordans thrives in the outdoors, embracing activities ranging from hiking and skiing to rock climbing and mountain biking. Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook have become powerful tools for Black outdoor enthusiasts to share their adventures, inspire others, and challenge stereotypes about who belongs in outdoor spaces.

Despite the progress made, disparities in access to outdoor recreation persist. Socioeconomic factors, historical injustices, and systemic barriers continue to limit opportunities for many Black and minority communities to fully engage with nature. Addressing these disparities requires collective action, investment in underserved communities, and the amplification of diverse voices in the outdoor industry.

One group making waves in the Black outdoors space today is the very cleverly named Blackpackers founded by Patricia Cameron. In their words, the nonprofit “meets those at the intersection of economic vulnerability and under-representation.” 

While our society has made tremendous strides over the years to make the outdoors more inclusive, in the undoubtedly very white Colorado, Blackpackers plays a critical role in creating a safe space where Black adventurers can experience the wonders of Colorado. The group boasts nearly 12,000 Instagram followers and hosts a plethora of events and community activities. 

October 22, 2022. Blackpackers at Arapahoe Basin.

As we reflect on the history of Colorado's Black community in the outdoors, let us celebrate the resilience, courage, and contributions of those who blazed trails, both figuratively and literally. Their stories remind us that the wilderness belongs to all people and that nature has the power to unite, heal, and inspire us—all we need to do is step outside and explore.

In honoring Black History Month, let us not only acknowledge the past but also commit to creating a more inclusive and equitable outdoor culture where everyone feels welcome, represented, and empowered to embrace the beauty of Colorado's natural landscapes. For in the outdoors, as in life, diversity is our greatest strength, and together, we can create a brighter, more inclusive future for all.

For more information on Colorado’s Black History, check out the plethora of information on the History Colorado website, or plan a trip to the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center.

Black American West Museum, Denver, Colorado

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