During Segregation, A Mountain Oasis Gave Black Families A Summer Escape

Aug 9, 2015
Originally published on January 13, 2016 1:27 pm

Editor's note: This story was originally published on August 9, 2015.

Fresh air, the smell of pine trees, the sounds of birds chirping and brooks babbling — all of these have helped American city-dwellers unwind for generations. But in the era of Jim Crow segregation, nature's calm also gave African-Americans a temporary respite from racism and discrimination.

Those fortunate enough to afford a resort stay could visit relatively well-known getaways like Martha's Vineyard's Oak Bluffs, or Idlewild in Lake County, Mich. But tucked into a narrow canyon at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains about 40 miles from Denver was the lesser-known mountain resort called Lincoln Hills. The only black resort of that era west of the Mississippi, Lincoln Hills provided a safe haven for middle-class African-Americans to play and relax under the pines.

They needed it. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan ran Colorado. Klan-affiliated politicians controlled the state House of Representatives. The governor was a Klansman; so was the mayor of Denver. It wasn't uncommon for the terrorist group to march through the streets in white robes and those sinister pointy-hat masks, sticking crosses in the lawns of black families, setting them ablaze.

This was the environment that Gary Jackson's great-grandparents and grandparents endured. The 69-year-old Denver County judge talks about the discrimination his relatives faced, despite their educational attainment and middle-class status. So when an opportunity arose for Jackson's great-grandfather to buy property in the mountains, away from it all, he didn't hesitate.

In 1922, two black developers purchased 100 acres of land that had been blighted by decades of gold and silver mining (part of the reason it was available to African-Americans in the first place). It was divided into lots and sold on credit. Five dollars a month for 20 months could get you one of the nicer plots. Jackson's great-grandfather purchased several and built cottages. Some were sold off but, almost 90 years later, two are still in his family.

The cabin Jackson owns is right near the entrance to Lincoln Hills, above railroad tracks where trains piled high with coal pass frequently. The California Zephyr cuts through here, too, carrying passengers from San Francisco to Chicago, with a stop in Denver. It's from that train that Jackson's cabin got its moniker — Zephyr View — coined by his Uncle Johnny in the early '50s.

The nickname stuck. You'll find it emblazoned on a red wooden sign above the cabin's sliding glass door. Another sign hangs over the bathroom, part tongue-in-cheek, part reminder of a not so distant past. COLORED RESTROOM, it reads.

When Jackson was a child, Lincoln Hills was his summer playground. As an adult, he came to understand its significance. "For us kids, it was just a fun, safe place to go. But for my grandparents and great-grandparents, it was a shelter from harsh times — a place to get away from harsh realities of Denver in the '20s and '30s: segregation, discrimination, not being treated equally."

Generations of Jackson's family — great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, children and grandchildren — have spent summers here, mostly outside, lounging on the giant front deck, barbecuing on the recently finished back porch, hiking the hills and cooling off in South Boulder Creek.

There were other fun things to do in Lincoln Hills, too. In 1928, a man named Obrey Wendell "Wink" Hamlet built a six-bedroom lodge, as well as 20 rental cabins and a tavern/ice cream parlor/dance hall. African-American luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Lena Horne made the trek to spend a restorative week in the woods. At its height, Jackson says, there were as many as 5,000 visitors coming up to Wink's Lodge over the course of a summer. It closed in 1965, but the building is still there, and it's on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jackson points out that the success of Wink's Lodge points to another benefit of Lincoln Hills. Not only was it a place of respite — it was also an economic resource. Here, African-Americans like Jackson's great-grandfather could buy property that would increase in value. They could build and sell cabins as a commercial venture. And, with all the tourists and visitors it attracted, Wink's Lodge was an economic driver for the area. The American dream, Jackson calls it.

Only a handful of black families still own cabins in Lincoln Hills. After desegregation, it was no longer a destination for the African-American middle class to summer. But a decade ago, black entrepreneur and Colorado native Matthew Burkett saw the Lincoln Hills property advertised on a flier in a grocery store. Burkett and his partners were looking for land to create a fly-fishing resort. When he called to find out more, he learned that the only other people expressing interest were sand and gravel company owners.

In 2007, Burkett purchased the property and went to work restoring land that had been neglected for years and used on and off by big industry. It's now in operation as the Lincoln Hills Fly Fishing Club, but Burkett has also partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA to bring kids, especially low-income kids of color, up to the woods. He says it's his way of keeping Lincoln Hills' legacy alive.

All summer, Code Switch is reporting stories on R&R: Race and Outdoor Recreation. We've hung out with Korean and Korean-American hardcore hikers and Chicano cyclists from East LA.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This time of year, city dwellers often leave town to enjoy the scent of pine trees and sounds of birdsong. For past generations of middle-class African-Americans, though, vacation options were limited. But then there was a place called Lincoln Hills in the Colorado mountains. During the era of enforced segregation, Lincoln Hills was a much-needed escape from the racial tensions of the time. Shereen Marisol Meraji of NPR's Code Switch team takes us to Lincoln Hills and back in time...

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: To the mid-1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan ran Colorado. It wasn't uncommon for the terrorist group to march through the streets in white robes with those sinister, pointy-hat masks and burn crosses on the lawns of black families. The Klan controlled the state House of Representatives. The governor was a Klansman, and so was the mayor of Denver.

But 40 miles west of downtown Denver, middle-class African-Americans could buy a small plot of land in the mountains on credit. A hundred acres was owned by two black developers. It had been stripped of some of its original beauty from years of gold and silver mining, part of the reason it was available to those developers in the first place. But $5 a month for 20 months could get you one of the nicer views of the pine-covered hills overlooking South Boulder Creek sparkling below.

GARY JACKSON: Those of us who were fortunate to be able to come here could get away from the tensions.

MERAJI: Gary Jackson's great-grandfather built several cottages out in Lincoln Hills in 1926. Two are still in the family. Jackson, a 69-year-old judge who founded one of Colorado's oldest minority bar associations, he owns one now. Its name is painted on a red wooden sign over the door.

JACKSON: Zephyr View is the name that my Uncle Johnny gave to the cabin because the California Zephyr runs in front of the cabin.

MERAJI: Uncle Johnny named it around 1949 after the train that goes from Chicago to San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

MERAJI: From 1924 to 1945, black girls would get on a train from Denver and head to Lincoln Hills for a YWCA summer camp called Camp Nizhoni.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LONNIE MCCABE: (As character, singing) Night on Camp Nizhoni. Night on Camp Nizhoni.

MERAJI: Actor Lonnie McCabe plays a woman reminiscing about her childhood summers spent in Lincoln Hills at the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver for groups of kids, tourists and locals.

MCCABE: (As character) That is the song that we would sing when we came up to Lincoln Hills to camp back during the summers when I was a little girl, Shereen.

MERAJI: McCabe calls herself a Colorado implant. Her parents brought her from Texas when she was 5. She never went to Camp Nizhoni and created this nine-minute monologue based on oral and written histories. But McCabe says she always chokes up during the parts where she talks about the racism people were escaping.

MCCABE: (As character) The memories make me cry sometimes. I'm really sorry. Let's talk about the fun stuff, OK?

MERAJI: She's in character there. But the tears are real. McCabe says it brings up her own childhood memories of segregation.

MCCABE: My children will never understand. And I'm glad that they don't have to understand that piece of it. They understand a different piece of it. Do you know what I mean? It's not like racism and bigotry has been eradicated because it's just in a very different form now.

MERAJI: Back at his Lincoln Hills cabin, Gary Jackson echoes McCabe's point about racism and goes one step further.

JACKSON: The racial tensions of today are no different from the racial tensions back in the '20s, when my great-grandfather and grandparents were coming up here.

MERAJI: Jackson says as an adult, this land represents that oasis from the stresses of life the way it must have for the generations that came before. But his childhood memories of coming up to the cabin in the summers are all fun and freedom and exploration of the natural world. He points to a huge rock about 25 feet up the hillside surrounded by pine trees as one of his favorite places to check out the view. His 6-year-old granddaughter, Layla, loves it too.

LAYLA: Once you get to the top, there's a big rock that you can climb. And there's a view of all the trees and houses. And there's train tracks. And you can see a river.

MERAJI: Only a handful of black families still own cabins here. After desegregation, it was no longer a destination for the black middle class to summer. But in 2007, an African-American investor and Colorado native bought the land and opened a fly-fishing destination. He kept the name, Lincoln Hills. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.