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Black History Month: In their own words (Part I)

Denver Water employees share what Black History Month means to them and how their culture provides inspiration today.

Black History Month is an opportunity to honor the achievements, culture and contribution African-Americans have made to our society, both past and present. Denver Water is proud of our diverse workforce, and we asked a few of our employees to share in their own words what Black History Month means to them and how their culture has provided inspiration.

Here are some of their stories:

Noel Willis, senior webmaster

Noel Willis, senior webmaster, recounts his family's history and struggles as African-Americans during tumultuous times in our country's history.

My family has left an indelible mark in how I perceive my history and, in a larger sense, African-American history in America.

Like many African-Americans, my family has roots in the South. My father’s family hailed from Texas and my mother’s kin originated in Louisiana. As is the case with many black families, mine emigrated from the South during the Great Migration in the 1940s to escape segregation and lack of economic opportunities.

My paternal grandmother brought my dad and his two siblings to Colorado Springs shortly after World War II. Despite the change in scenery, my father still dealt with Jim Crow on occasion. Every Saturday when he and his friends headed to the movies, they had to sit upstairs in the segregated balcony while white patrons sat downstairs.

My dad re-engaged with Southern segregation when he went for Air Force basic training in Mississippi in the 1950s. Even though President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ended segregation in the armed forces, African-American servicemen still dealt with discrimination on and around military bases.

One story my father relayed to my two oldest brothers and me is when he almost refused to go to the back of the bus when ordered by the bus driver. My dad did so grudgingly after seeing the trepidation of his fellow black passengers. He was an outsider and didn’t want to cause a scene, but he burned with indignation. A couple of years later, in neighboring Alabama, Rosa Parks would get her name cemented in history. But that anger would fuel my father’s drive to get his master’s degree in psychology.

A few years before my dad’s family settled in the shadow of Pikes Peak, my maternal grandfather moved his family to Portland, Oregon, to find work in the city’s shipyards. My grandfather and grandmother, devoted churchgoers, became deacon and deaconess of one the largest African-American churches in the Pacific Northwest. Their church, like many black churches across the country during the civil rights movement, hosted community rallies and town halls about social change. My mom attended many of those events.

My dad and mom met through a mutual friend while he was visiting Portland. Eventually, they married and dad brought my mom to Colorado, finally settling in Denver’s North Park Hill neighborhood, where I grew up.

My mother, an avid reader, was a firm believer that reading unlocked many doors. She took my brothers and me to the Park Hill library often as children where I would consume literature about black historical figures like Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and some figures that may not be as well known: Crispus Attucks, Benjamin Banneker, Bessie Coleman, Madam C.J. Walker — and a few with Colorado connections — Nat Love and James Beckwourth.

My oldest brother, Winston, has also been a huge influence on me. He is a professor of African-American studies, with an emphasis on history. He taught for five years at Metropolitan State University, and has steered me towards great books over the years.