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Hope in our Heritage: Pueblo

After seven years in operation at the First Street address, the home was moved to an old house at the end of Grand Avenue and what was then the outskirts of town. At the new location, where two homes joined together through a short passageway, boys and elderly men lived on one side, while the girls, elderly women and a matron, who oversaw daily operations and cared for the residents, lived in the adjoining building. It wasn’t until 1935 that the name of the institution was officially changed to the Lincoln Home Association.

People arrived at the home in many different ways. In some cases, the death of a wife left a full-time, mill-working widower with little choice but to pay $10 monthly for his offspring to live at the home. For others, there were no families to help.

Despite the modern notion we sometimes have about wayward orphanages of the past, the tenets of good character and religious devotion were instilled early in the home’s residents. The children of Lincoln Home recited the Beatitudes every morning and paid 10 cents each to take the city bus to services at the 8th Street Baptist Church each week. Like other neighborhood children, as students they moved through Somerlid, Freed, and then Centennial until graduating.

At the time, local leaders in the African-American community understood themselves to be the only people willing to provide a safety net for the least fortunate among us. As the needs of the home advanced over the years, other funding sources – money raised from ladies’ clubs, the Elks, other organizations, and private citizens (even food donated from local markets) – provided additional help.

Lincoln Home was not the only orphanage in Pueblo during this period, but it certainly faced greater difficulties in its operation thanks to a nation only beginning to shake off centuries of institutional slavery and segregation. The city’s two other orphanages, The Sacred Heart Orphanage (established by the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters) cared for white and Hispanic children while the McClelland Orphanage – according to its written policy – would not accept any children of color. Funding for the orphanages was also varied. In 1906, when the local paper raised $266 for the homes, $120 each was given to Sacred Heart and McClelland while the Pueblo Colored Orphanage received the $26 remainder (with change). Years later, in 1923 when community funds were again raised for the homes, McClelland received over $9,600, Sacred Heart over $6,500 and for the Pueblo Colored Orphanage, just over $2,100.

1963 was a pivotal year for both the Lincoln Home and civil rights in America. The same year Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, legislation ushered in a new era of foster-home living, leading to the closure of the home.

The property on Grand Avenue decayed over the years until Ruth Steele, a civic-minded independent community member, decided to reclaim Pueblo’s heritage. In 1985, she began gathering funds to restore the property, a successful drive that ultimately led to the establishment of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Museum and Cultural Center. Steele acknowledges of the drive, “The community responded!”

After finally securing the home through a donation from the Christmas Foundation, the work of establishing a community center for future events began. Multiple interviews, tours, documentaries, presentations and community events later, the home is now filled with a sizable amount of original furniture and other material including a wealth of images of past residents.

For almost six decades, the Lincoln Home – once home to former slaves who moved north after emancipation – housed a few hundred children, the majority of whom are still living. To celebrate their shared history, many former occupants themselves attend reunions in Pueblo to reminisce about their experiences growing up here.

As for the site, Steele remains committed to its development and promoting the story of the people behind it.

“For the Lincoln Home to have been the only known slave house and former orphanage way out West, to be here in Pueblo!” Steele enthuses, “We have a rich heritage here and we will always have a resource for people to know about our great history.”

As time passes it is sometimes easy to forget the figurative shoulders on which we stand. While we occasionally stop to remember those who laid the bricks and mortar, railway lines, and did all the other heavy lifting required to build a city, it’s also important to remember those who did anything they could, from holding bake sales to giving whatever they could in order to feed, clothe, house and educate the destitute among us in a time when there were few safety nets to help the youngest (or oldest) most in need.

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