How a picture of 20 Black women inspired Denver’s Five Points

On a sunny March day, the Women of Welton Street gathered for a picture.

Striking in their bright clothes — sharp reds, sunny yellows, brilliant greens and hot pinks — the 20 women stood with confidence. Hands on their hips. Shoulders squared. Big smiles.

The women, all professionals in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, came to make a statement: We are here for each other and we are here to stay.

But they had no idea how the photograph would become a symbol of joy, strength and hope in the entire neighborhood. Comments on social media posts have exclaimed “Beautiful!,” “So nice to see my home” and “This is everything!”

“It brings back the spirit of who the people are here,” said Terry Nelson, a librarian who is in the picture. “It enriches what we have missed. That wonderful warmth of being here.”

To say the least, the past year has been rough for everyone, but it’s been even more difficult for Black people. The novel coronavirus made them sicker and brought higher death rates than for whites or Latinos. Minority-owned businesses struggled to get government-backed pandemic loans to keep their livelihoods afloat. And then there were the racial justice protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Pile all of that on top of a rapidly changing historic Denver neighborhood and the weight of the world felt crushing.

Back in the summer, during the height of the racial justice protests, Fathima Dickerson, whose family owns the Welton Street Cafe, created the Women of Welton Street group, thinking she and the other women could lean on each other to get through the hard times.

Gathering for a group photo was her idea, but she had no idea how powerful the moment would be.

For the Welton Street Cafe, the pandemic brought an abrupt change to a restaurant where generations have eaten hot wings, catfish and Jamaican pâté. When schools and businesses closed and the lunchtime rush came to a sudden stop, Dickerson said she felt empty, especially walking along Welton Street.

“I didn’t feel any cars. I didn’t feel any people. I didn’t feel anything,” Dickerson said. “I felt like I lost my whole breath. I couldn’t breathe. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?’”

Welton Street Cafe transitioned to a take-out-only restaurant, offering to cook anything for anybody at any time. And Dickerson even started selling the World’s Finest Chocolate candy bars, usually sold by schoolchildren as a fundraiser, to make ends meet.

Down the street, Rise Jones kept TeaLee’s Tea Company in business with grit and creativity. She found community grants, made a big push at Christmas and has opened at a reduced capacity. During the darkest months of the pandemic, though, she felt disconnected from the community.

So picture day felt like a renewal, she said.

“It was a badass moment to go up and down Welton to affirm who we are and affirm our history,” she said. “We got to connect with people we didn’t see every day. It’s the community and the bond.”

Nelson and Jameka Lewis, both research librarians at the Blair-Caldwell African-American Research Library, already have declared the photograph historical and are putting it in the library’s archives. They’ve documented the neighborhood, once known as the Harlem of the West, and have watched as developers have built tall apartment buildings and white-owned businesses have opened.

The change in the past five years has been so significant that some wonder whether Black people even live in Five Points anymore, Lewis said.

“People come and say, ‘Black people are still here?’ and we say, ‘Yes, we are still here,’” she said. “None of us were surprised about any of the feedback that has come. It’s important that people understand the history of this area and the culture of this area is Black It is rooted in Blackness. Black excellence.”

For Chermetra Keys, the photographer who took the picture, the moment affirmed her decision to quit a steady job to open a photography business. And it restored a connection with a community where her family has strong ties.

Three days before the picture was taken, Keys’s great-grandmother, Zona Moore, passed away at 95. Moore owned Zona’s Tamales, fondly known as the “Pig Ear Stand” to locals because of its boiled pig ear sandwiches. Moore was a neighborhood fixture, but Keys didn’t really know many of the women she was about to photograph.

“Being there in that moment was so cool. I didn’t know all these women existed down here,” she said. “Whatever I can do I want to get down in the Five Points and be surrounded by these women.”

That day, the women walked around the neighborhood, posing for pictures in front of businesses. While together, they told stories about the past and discussed future plans. Multiple women described the moment as inspiring.

For Jones, it reminded her of just how special Five Points is and how important the women business owners are. And she felt energized to keep her shop, which specializes in loose leaf tea and African-American books, open.

“If you can get through this, there’s an opportunity of not just surviving but an opportunity to thrive,” she said. “One of the beautiful parts of our story is we can do anything. It is more than just about surviving.”

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