Medallion Name – WELTON
Significance – Freed slaves who found work laying down track for railroad companies found a home at Five Points, allowing the neighborhood to grow into one of the most culturally vibrant African American communities in the United States.
Inscription – Welton Street connects Downtown to Five Points, the historical commercial center of the African-American community. Denver’s position as a railroad hub made the town an obvious stopping point for musicians traveling between New York City, Kansas City, and Los Angeles. Black artists who weren’t welcome in hotels in other parts of Denver, found reprieve and enthusiastic audiences in Five Points, earning the neighborhood the nickname “The Harlem of the West.”
The name of the neighborhood comes from the five-pointed intersection where 26th Avenue, 27th Street and Washington Street meet at Welton Street.
Location – 39°44’44.5″N 104°59’26.1″W
Details – The Five Points neighborhoods was founded in the 1860s as one of Denver’s first residential suburbs. Originally a German, Irish and Jewish neighborhood, it got its name back in the early 1880s from the Stout Street Herdic Coach Line, which put “Five Points” on its destination signage to describe the five-way intersection of 26th Street, 27th Avenue, Washington and Welton Streets. Following the silver crash of 1893, anyone who was anyone in the Five Points neighborhood moved to trendy Capitol Hill. The neighborhood became and early example of adaptive reuse. Large Victorian homes were divided into smaller units for multiple families, allowing the neighborhood to accommodate the influx of new Denver residents who needed affordable housing. Freed slaves who found work laying down track for railroad companies started renting apartments at Five Points and the neighborhood grew into an African American community. Denver’s black population grew from more than 1,000 in the late 19th century to more than 5,000 by 1910. Informal Jim Crow laws effectively kept the Black population confined to Five Points and by 1920, more than nine out of ten of Denver’s 6,000 black residents in the neighborhood as well as the adjacent neighborhood of Whittier, the namesake of American poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.
“Black residents of Denver were confined by custom, covenant, and coercion to a fairly concentrated residential area around the Five Points intersection,” observed historians Tom and Laurie Simmons.
The Roaring ‘20s had arrived and jazz was the music of the era. America’s first musical style had recently originated in New Orleans as a fusion of African and European music. Denver’s position as a railroad hub made the city an obvious stopping point for musicians traveling between New York City, Kansas City, and Los Angeles. Black artists who weren’t welcome in hotels in other parts of Denver, found reprieve and an enthusiastic audience in Five Points. Legends like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and countless others would play the Five Points’ clubs and performance halls and were welcome to stay at the Rossonian Hotel. This wedge-shaped, yellow brick inn sits at 2650 Welton Street and is one of the “points” of the Five Points intersection. Nearby, the Glenarm YMCA, at 2800 Glenarm, became the unofficial town hall of Five Points, it “included a swimming pool, gymnasium, locker rooms, clubrooms, a branch of the Denver Public Library, and dormitories.”
As the keystone of the neighborhood, the Rossonian Hotel created niches where other forms of life could flourish. Originally known as the Baxter, the hotel opened in 1912. Sold in 1929, the guesthouse became the Rossonian and it had a performance lounge. The list of guests reads like a jazz hall of fame: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, George Shearing, Duke Ellington and Dinah Washington among others. These world-renowned musicians were inspiration for a jazz scene fostered by talented local musicians who regularly performed at Five Points hotels, where the cover charge was around a dollar.
Musician and Denver native Purnell Steen, recalled his experience at the Rossonian around the time of World War II. “If there was a long line of people waiting to get in, Quinton Harrington, who was the manager at the time, would go get the Anglos first, even if a Black couple were in the front. He was Black, but he would leave the Black people standing on the sidewalk. He knew the Anglos could afford the cover charge and the drinks.”
Working musicians sustained music in Five Points; these were the people who were regularly players in the smaller places. The dean of Five Points musicians was named Bob Wilson, an organist. It was the era of the Black social clubs, and there was usually a formal dance once a month or more. Bands would play for these dances, and they used to pick up musicians. You couldn’t walk down the sidewalk without hearing the ring of a ride cymbal or reedy blues notes from a sax. Liquor shops and gambling halls cuddled up with the jazz and afterhours clubs, the neighborhood had become its own city within a city. One of the most famous late-night spots was the Ex-Serviceman’s Club (a.k.a. “The Hole”) at 2627 Welton Street, across the street from the Rossonian, which featured a Sunday night jam session. “The Ex-Servicemen’s Club was the hottest jazz spot in the West,” recalled local drummer and bandleader Shelley Rhym. “Musicians, Black and White, gather there until the wee hours of the morning exchanging musical ideas.”
Through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Five Points continued as the seat of Denver’s African American community. Author Jack Kerouac passed through Five Points while compiling postwar counterculture manifesto On the Road. The Roxy and Casino Cabaret were hangouts for Kerouac and other Beatniks. Legend has it that it was the author who dubbed Five Points “The Harlem of the West.”
Thanks to the Beatniks, jazz gained popularity on a larger scale. Music venues such as Band Box and the Playboy Club developed along Colfax Avenue. “White people didn’t have to go to Five Points to hear jazz anymore,” noted Steen. “By the time I started coming to Five Points as an adult, the Rossonian’s music was mostly a memory, but there were other little clubs in Five Points,” shared Steen. “The Voter’s Club, the K-C Lounge (that was the original Rice’s Taproom), Lil’s at 29th and Welton, and there was a place called the Protocrat, an after-hours club at 2544 Washington Street. It was in the basement. Boy, a lot of whiskey was drunk in there.”
With a shrinking local population and fewer visitors, many Five Points clubs closed, including the Ex-Servicemen’s Club and the Casino Cabaret…and finally the Rossonian—the iconic, piano-trumpet-cymbal-sax-blasting heart of Five Points—quietly locked its doors.
The slow end to segregation of Denver’s neighborhoods forever altered Five Points as the seat of the city’s African American community. With the opportunity to acquire homes in other neighborhoods, residents began to move. The population of Five Points went into decline. In 1959, the population of Five Points was 32,000; by 1974, it had declined to 8,700. Familiar businesses, such as Charlene’s House of Beauty, Kapre Chicken, and others closed. In a pattern repeated in other American cities, this decline was met with a succession of efforts to resurrect both the neighborhood and community.
Today, historic Five Points’ creativity and vibrancy live on in a fascinating fusion of old and newly gentrified. The neighborhood is laden with quirky coffeehouses and craft breweries, museums and sties telling stories from the past, and of course there are beloved soul food and barbecue joints.
Music and celebration are still alive in the neighborhood. Five Points’ Juneteenth celebration, attracts an upward of 120,000 people over four days each year. Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. On September 22, 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln declaring that as of January, 1863, all persons held in slavery within any state would forever be set free. On June 19th, 1865, two-and-a-half years after the proclamation, the news reached Galveston, Texas, where slavery was still practiced. The news of this historic document was greeted with celebration, joy and freedom and ultimately became the Juneteenth celebration.
Cultural Highpoints of Five Points
- Black American West Museum and Heritage Center – This captivating museum is located in the home of Colorado’s first black woman doctor, Dr. Justina Ford. The museum tells the story of black cowboys and of Dearfield – an all-black town before the Great Depression ultimately forced everyone back into the cities. (Today, Dearfield is a ghost town.)
- Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library – This library was the brainchild of Denver’s first African American mayor Wellington Webb and his wife Wilma. They believed the history of African Americans in Denver and the American West was underrepresented. The library is named in honor of Omar Blair, the first African American president of the Denver school board, and Elvin Caldwell, the first African American city council member.
- Stiles African American Heritage Center – Created to teach African American history and share the significant contributions African Americans have made to society.
- Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble Studio – The CPRD was founded 1970 with the belief that the language of dance transcends the boundaries of culture, class and age. The CPRD is committed to bringing dance into the lives of as many diverse people as possible. They offer a professional modern dance ensemble, year-round dance school, 300-seat theatre, in-school lecture demonstration series, international summer dance institute and outreach program for at-risk youth.
Why did Five Points develop into an African American community?
What is jazz?
How did the Five Points neighborhood evolve into a vibrant jazz community?
What does Juneteenth celebrate?
Why did the African American community leave Five Points?