By Jenny Paulson / Southern Colorado Independent Magazine
What used to been named the Martin Luther King Jr. Heritage Center and Museum and the Lincoln House located at 27th and Grand Avenue in Pueblo has a long, rich and sometimes controversial history. The house, which is actually two closely built homes, was built in 1905 and was first called the Colored Orphanage and Old Folks Home. Historic documents say that it was “the only home for colored children in an area of seven states.” The name of the institution was officially changed to the Lincoln Home Association. In operation until 1963, Pueblo’s entire black community took an interest in the property’s management, according to historic websites. An estimated 1,000 children lived there during the era. After it was closed the children were put in foster homes.
A colorful quote from the newspaper the Pueblo Indicator in 1914 states that “Colored people are standing by each other in Pueblo more loyally than ever before. Prominent among their race benevolences is the Colored Orphanage and Old Folks Home at the upper end of Grand Avenue, occupying a double house or rather pair of houses built a few feet apart and fairly well adapted to the use of the orphanage. The number of inmates has grown until the two roofs shelter thirty persons, of whom 26 are children or young boys and girls… the matron Mr.s Watson ought to receive liberal support both moral and financial from Pueblo people of all races.
In 1930 the Pueblo Indicator reports that the City did fundraisers annually called the Pueblo County Chest to provide for the poor and destitute families and homeless children of the City and contributed to the Colored Orphanage and Old Folks Home. Hundreds of volunteers for one week each year solicited businesses and individuals for contributions to the chest raising thousands of dollars to donate to local non profits. In 1993, the 3,500 square foot building and the property it stands on were donated to the King Commission by the EM Christmas Foundation with plans for the buildings to be used as a museum with a permanent exhibit about the orphanage and changing exhibits about black history. It was listed on the State Register of Historic Properties in December 1997.
Pueblo’s Dr Ruth Steele spearheaded the drive to restore the former orphanage and was the long time director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission and Cultural Center. She filled the Lincoln Home Orphanage with antiques and opened it to the public and it was dedicated in 1999. She worked for years to collect displays for the homes which became a museum open to the public, including a controversial statue of MLK and Emmett Till, a black youth who was lynched in 1955, which was in Denver’s City Park for about two decades, beginning in 1976. In 2002, the sheetmetal and bronze statue was moved to the Martin Luther King Jr Museum and Cultural Center in Pueblo after being stored at a Denver Museum after a long running dispute over payment for the statue because members of the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Foundation, which commissioned it. They said the work of artist Ed Rose didn’t look like King and complained that the head was too large for his body. According to reports the artist argued that MLK had a big head, and got his money after a long dispute. After he died relatives donated it to Pueblo.
Dr Steele has been a beloved member of the Pueblo community for many years. In 2003, State representative Scott McGinnis in 2003 gave tribute to Steele, recognizing her determination and commitment to Pueblo saying that she was a tireless activist for african-american interests in Pueblo and throughout Colorado. In 2014 she was given the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime Honorary Commissioners Award by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission, for her helping to support the bill that established the MLK holiday. The purpose of the Commission according to the website is to encourage and educate communities in Colorado and encourage appropriate observations, ceremonies and activities in commemoration of the federal holiday.
Dr Steele is a graduate of Centennial High School in Pueblo and attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and was especially interested in working to get more african-americans registered to vote. She was a legislative aide to state representatives Wilma Webb and Arie Taylor and helped to establish a Martin Luther King Holiday in Colorado. She was a strong advocate of quality education for african-american leadership in Pueblo and was named Citizen of the Year in 2003 in Pueblo for her service. McGinnis said “she worked tirelessly to build bridges between Pueblo’s disparate communities.”
The orphanage house owners reportedly lost it’s non-profit status and the buildings became bank owned in 2014. They were bought in a tax lien sale by a private party and in 2015 It was renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Heritage Center Museum. A new group was formed to help help rescue the building then it was sold once again to a non profit.
Hopefully the homes and statues will have a future in Pueblo.
Jenny Paulson is the publisher of Southern Colorado Independent Magazine. She was a journalist for 15 years and owned an alternative magazine in Northwest Colorado ten years called Frontier Magazine. She has lived in Pueblo ten years and started the online magazine in early 2016 to explore the lifestyle and lore of Pueblo and Southern Colorado.