RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This time of year, city dwellers often leave town to enjoy the scent of pine trees and sounds of birdsong. For past generations of middle-class African-Americans, though, vacation options were limited. But then there was a place called Lincoln Hills in the Colorado mountains. During the era of enforced segregation, Lincoln Hills was a much-needed escape from the racial tensions of the time. Shereen Marisol Meraji of NPR's Code Switch team takes us to Lincoln Hills and back in time...
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: To the mid-1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan ran Colorado. It wasn't uncommon for the terrorist group to march through the streets in white robes with those sinister, pointy-hat masks and burn crosses on the lawns of black families. The Klan controlled the state House of Representatives. The governor was a Klansman, and so was the mayor of Denver.
But 40 miles west of downtown Denver, middle-class African-Americans could buy a small plot of land in the mountains on credit. A hundred acres was owned by two black developers. It had been stripped of some of its original beauty from years of gold and silver mining, part of the reason it was available to those developers in the first place. But $5 a month for 20 months could get you one of the nicer views of the pine-covered hills overlooking South Boulder Creek sparkling below.
GARY JACKSON: Those of us who were fortunate to be able to come here could get away from the tensions.
MERAJI: Gary Jackson's great-grandfather built several cottages out in Lincoln Hills in 1926. Two are still in the family. Jackson, a 69-year-old judge who founded one of Colorado's oldest minority bar associations, he owns one now. Its name is painted on a red wooden sign over the door.
JACKSON: Zephyr View is the name that my Uncle Johnny gave to the cabin because the California Zephyr runs in front of the cabin.
MERAJI: Uncle Johnny named it around 1949 after the train that goes from Chicago to San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)
MERAJI: From 1924 to 1945, black girls would get on a train from Denver and head to Lincoln Hills for a YWCA summer camp called Camp Nizhoni.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LONNIE MCCABE: (As character, singing) Night on Camp Nizhoni. Night on Camp Nizhoni.
MERAJI: Actor Lonnie McCabe plays a woman reminiscing about her childhood summers spent in Lincoln Hills at the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver for groups of kids, tourists and locals.
MCCABE: (As character) That is the song that we would sing when we came up to Lincoln Hills to camp back during the summers when I was a little girl, Shereen.
MERAJI: McCabe calls herself a Colorado implant. Her parents brought her from Texas when she was 5. She never went to Camp Nizhoni and created this nine-minute monologue based on oral and written histories. But McCabe says she always chokes up during the parts where she talks about the racism people were escaping.
MCCABE: (As character) The memories make me cry sometimes. I'm really sorry. Let's talk about the fun stuff, OK?
MERAJI: She's in character there. But the tears are real. McCabe says it brings up her own childhood memories of segregation.
MCCABE: My children will never understand. And I'm glad that they don't have to understand that piece of it. They understand a different piece of it. Do you know what I mean? It's not like racism and bigotry has been eradicated because it's just in a very different form now.
MERAJI: Back at his Lincoln Hills cabin, Gary Jackson echoes McCabe's point about racism and goes one step further.
JACKSON: The racial tensions of today are no different from the racial tensions back in the '20s, when my great-grandfather and grandparents were coming up here.
MERAJI: Jackson says as an adult, this land represents that oasis from the stresses of life the way it must have for the generations that came before. But his childhood memories of coming up to the cabin in the summers are all fun and freedom and exploration of the natural world. He points to a huge rock about 25 feet up the hillside surrounded by pine trees as one of his favorite places to check out the view. His 6-year-old granddaughter, Layla, loves it too.
LAYLA: Once you get to the top, there's a big rock that you can climb. And there's a view of all the trees and houses. And there's train tracks. And you can see a river.
MERAJI: Only a handful of black families still own cabins here. After desegregation, it was no longer a destination for the black middle class to summer. But in 2007, an African-American investor and Colorado native bought the land and opened a fly-fishing destination. He kept the name, Lincoln Hills. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.