Black feminine activist, artist obtained little recognition for civil rights work in 1930s Colorado Springs | Way of life

The story of Gretchen McRae ends with a cliffhanger.

It may be what first gets your attention to the longtime Colorado Springs resident, but there’s a lot more to spot and celebrate with the civil rights activist and artist who ran for the city council as the first black woman in 1943.

“The details of Gretchen McRae’s life are sketchy because there are few people who knew her well, and because her public life was poorly reported by a press that was as slow as her society to see value beneath the surface. But an image begins to form as those who have met her cannot avoid the word “brilliant”. Not quite as obvious, but still recognizable, is that she had the courage to keep up with the brain, ”wrote Gazette Telegraph reporter Ed Ashby in 1978 after McRae’s death.

Caroline Blackburn, now a New Mexico artist, became particularly interested in McRae from 2006-2007 when she volunteered at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. She organized and cataloged the Areba Jackson Collection, which contains artwork, materials, handwritten notes, typewritten letters, and more from McRae’s life. Blackburn went on to write an article about the activist that was included in “Extraordinary Women of Rocky Mountain West,” a book from the Pikes Peak Library District.

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She describes McRae as driven, intelligent, and not afraid to speak up, even if those around her would have preferred that she stayed calmer. But she wanted the best for her community.“She wanted to achieve rights for blacks by focusing on equality,” says Blackburn.

“She was pretty much convinced that the conversation about segregation and desegregation should be broken off. She felt that the government and the community needed to talk about how to equate citizens. “

When the city wanted to set up a recreation center south of downtown for the black community, it firmly believed it wasn’t a good idea, even if it seemed on the surface: “It just had to be a community center, not a black one, because that’s segregation, ”says Blackburn.

McRae was about five years old when her family moved to town in 1903 and settled in a house at 822 S. Weber St. in the new, mostly black, neighborhood south of downtown. They also bought a house at 805 S. Weber St. Both apartments have disappeared in the course of the renovation.

She graduated from Colorado Springs High School, now Palmer High School, in 1917 and took a bold leap in 1918 by moving to Washington, DC, where she worked as a clerk and stenographer at the US Department of the Interior.

It was there that McRae began to join the civil rights movement for Black Americans, which included becoming a delegate to a NAACP conference and campaigning for the desegregation of their workplaces. She also developed her artistic career by taking courses at Howard University.

When her application to desegregate at work was denied in 1929, she resigned in protest and moved to New York City, where she briefly attended Cooper Union Women’s Art School. Typewritten letters to a school administrator from 1931 indicated that she felt racially discriminated against after expressing her displeasure with racial abuse in the school’s Pioneer publication.

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“This is ongoing propaganda that incites disrespect to a certain group of people, and I believe it contradicts the wishes of the founder and the principles on which the school is built,” she wrote.

In 1932 McRae returned to Washington, where she published the pamphlet “Are You Depressed?” And landed a meeting with Secretary Harold Ickes to petition the Home Office for desegregation.

“She had a keen interest in art,” says Blackburn, “but her feelings that she had to do something more for the civil rights movement meant that her energy had to be focused on writing essays.” Writing letters to government officials and letters representing the NAACP became more important than making art. “

Her Washington years ended in 1937 when her grandmother died and she returned to Colorado Springs. Blackburn remains at a loss that a young black woman brave enough to leave town and actively support the civil rights movement has not been featured in the papers or invited to speak at college.

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“It dissolves into history. You don’t really hear from her. In Colorado Springs, people don’t really understand what she did, and when they did, it wasn’t discussed in large circles, ”she says. “I could speculate that it was black. When she was a child, the Ku Klux Klan stronghold was Denver and the sources had a large following of white supremacists. I would bet a lot of that seeped into the 1940s and 50s. Maybe it was that or she just became a hermit. “

McRae lived in one of the family’s homes on Weber Street and began publishing her essays on equality in her magazine, A Free Republic. It ran for three years and included poetry, fiction, cartoons, and recipes from a mix of contributors.

“Depression is not caused by a lack of resources or anything tangible, but rather by intangibles such as these that can ruin a nation: employability, incomprehension, selfishness, stubbornness or greed, which are a combination of the first four,” she said told her readers in an issue.

McRae’s story ends with a surprising and gruesome twist. In 1978, when a postal worker noticed that neither she nor her sister Almena had picked up her mail for a few days, Gretchen’s body was found in the house. She had died of a heart attack a few days earlier. Almena’s body was also discovered. She had died of natural causes four years earlier, but Gretchen had kept her indoors, wrapped her in paper towels and mummified her, and propped her up on a chair.

“That story seems to be what Colorado Springs remembered it for,” says Blackburn. “This is really unfair because the most interesting parts of her life were when she was involved in the civil rights movement as a young woman. It was really hard to do in the early 1920s and 30s, and it was even bolder for a black woman to speak out. “

Blackburn can only speculate as to why Gretchen did not report her sister’s death.

“If I were her, I would have been very frustrated by that point,” she says. “When you felt like you weren’t being heard and couldn’t live off what you really wanted. Her sister was the only person who was likely to understand. Gretchen didn’t want to let go and be alone. “

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