Colorado Proud: Elvin Caldwell fought for equality throughout his career in public service
RTD continues to celebrate Black History Month, recognizing and honoring the achievements of Black Americans throughout the annals of U.S. history. RTD shines the spotlight on Elvin Caldwell, a civil rights advocate, policymaker, community leader and organizer who introduced policies that continue to greatly benefit Black Americans in Colorado.
Caldwell was born on April 11, 1919, in Denver and raised in the Five Points neighborhood, at the time, the most prominent Black neighborhood in western United States. Five Points, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Denver is home to many community leaders, including former Denver mayors, governors and leaders. A great place to go for a day out on the town, the neighborhood hosts a plethora of bars, clubs and music venues, where artists such as Miles Davis and Billie Holiday performed. In 1994, RTD built its first light rail line, the Central Corridor line, later named the D Line, through the neighborhood to create a convenient connection to downtown Denver. This would later be renamed the L Line after the D Line was rerouted to service the Central Platte Valley corridor between Denver and Littleton in 2002.
While there were opportunities present in the neighborhood, they were limited as compared to more predominantly white and upper-class neighborhoods. Caldwell’s parents, Wilba and Inez Caldwell, were proactive in protesting the inequality and discrimination that was ever-present in the Five Points neighborhood and beyond. These experiences would inspire him to carry the torch as he grew older.
Caldwell graduated from Eastside High School in 1937, where he received a scholarship for track and field to the University of Colorado. He later transferred to the University of Denver, where he finished his education while continuing to participate in track and field, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science with a minor in business.
In 1941, Caldwell married Frank “Frankie” Harriette Webb, a schoolteacher, and had four children. As the United States became involved in World War II, Caldwell went on to serve as a chief statistician and assistant superintendent for production at the Remington Arms Company’s Denver Ordinance Plant. However, once the war was over, the plant downsized significantly, leaving many Black workers in Denver without jobs. This fact, coupled with Black servicemen returning from deployment to find themselves out of opportunities for employment after service, led to many demonstrations, protests and sit-ins. During this time, Caldwell took on the challenge to become a leader in the community and become an activist for equal rights for Black Americans.
In 1950, Caldwell was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives at the age of 31, where he held the seat from 1950 to 1955, before he was elected to the Denver City Council in later in 1955. That made Caldwell the first African American city council member in the western United States. He served on the council for 28 years, equating to seven terms in office. Five of those years, he was the president of the city council.
Caldwell’s career as a councilman was illustrious, as he authored several policies, laws and acts that helped to level the playing field and bring equality for all in Colorado. By 1958, Caldwell helped pass the Colorado Urban Renewal Law, and shortly after established the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA), created to combat discriminatory practices by banks for those seeking to apply for mortgages, better known as “redlining.” Before the establishment of DURA, banks could legally discriminate against Black Americans by only approving mortgages for new houses built in all-white neighborhoods under the 1944 GI Bill, which prevented African Americans from applying for mortgages. These discriminatory practices by banks and lenders would later be made illegal through the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
In addition to the establishment of DURA, Caldwell brought funding for both the Skyline Urban Renewal Project and Denver General Hospital. After successfully funding those initiatives, Caldwell later shifted his focus to combat institutionalized discriminatory employment practices in Denver in the ’70s, starting with how Blacks and other ethnic minorities were prohibited from being promoted within law enforcement agencies or serving as judges. He implemented the first Fair Employment Practices Act in Colorado, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, creed, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disability by employers, both in the public and private sectors. In 1980, Denver mayor William H. McNichols Jr. appointed Caldwell as manager of safety, making him the first Black member of a Denver mayoral cabinet.
While Caldwell focused primarily on ending inequality and discriminatory practices against Black Coloradans as a member of the Denver City Council, he remained involved in his communities, taking leadership roles at several community organizations, including the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Glenarm Branch, the Boy Scouts of America, Police Activities League (PAL) of Denver, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Opportunities Industrialization Center, among others. Caldwell was also a member of the Commission on Community Relations, taking on challenges with race, ethnicity and cultural diversity that were prevalent in the Denver area. He campaigned to create funding for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through a series of tax initiatives.
Caldwell died at the age of 85 on April 30, 2004. Prior to his passing, he received several honors. In 1990, the Denver City Council created the Elvin R. Caldwell Community Service Plaza. Thirteen years later, on April 26, 2003, the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library was constructed to honor Caldwell’s decades of public service to improve the lives of Blacks and ethnic minorities in Colorado. The library’s name also honors Omar Blair, famous for his work in the desegregation of schools.
The impact Caldwell made on the progression of equal rights in Colorado cannot be understated. He leaves an everlasting legacy, carrying the torch on ending discrimination in the hiring process, bettering Black and underserved communities, and inspiring generations of Coloradans to continue the journey to equality for all, making Colorado proud.