An Untold History of Aspen

Jay Cowan | September 5, 2019 | Culture

Sometimes a few people or events can set the tone for a community, and the actions of one or two can make a difference for generations. A look back at the unexpected history of diversity in a ski town.

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Photo courtesy of the Aspen Historical Society

Ski resorts in the western U.S. aren’t the first place you’d look for diversity. Skiing has been one of the whitest large-scale recreation sports in America for a long time. And old mining towns like Aspen weren’t famously tolerant either. But Aspen, for such a supposedly exclusive hideout, has been surprisingly inclusive over the years, echoing some of Europe’s great resorts, and well ahead of the curve for most Rocky Mountain ski towns.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. In the beginning, once the Native Americans had been run off, settlers were predominantly male and white. But they were often from many different countries and religious backgrounds, which passed for reasons to fight when race wasn’t available. And some color did show up in the local populations, even though Native Americans, for example, were largely unwelcome in mining towns throughout the West, and Chinese immigrants had to live outside Aspen’s city limits.

Out of a population of around 12,000 in 1885 Aspen, the census recorded 29 blacks and 19 “mulattos.” Not a high percentage, but for the time and place, just 20 years after the end of the Civil War, high in the Rocky Mountains, it was more than might have been expected. And most of them worked on the infamous “black gangs” in the mines, treated as virtual slaves and given the toughest jobs.

When the price of silver collapsed, the mass exodus from town included most of the Chinese and African Americans, but not a black man named Hannibal Brown. Born in Kansas in 1876, he was first mentioned in local records in 1900. As the only man of color in town then or for years afterward, he was noticed.

As recounted in the book Aspen: The Quiet Years, in numerous interviews of other residents who lived in Aspen then, Brown was highly regarded for his work ethic and unique lifestyle. Several of those who spoke said that they really didn’t remember much prejudice in town at the time, especially where Brown was concerned. Some other quotes undercut that notion a little, even as they insisted that Aspen was very comfortable with “the only Negro in town.”

Brown spent most of the first 50 years of the 20th century in Aspen, married several times, and opened his doors to the whole community on Christmas and New Year’s to serve elaborate cocktails, even during Prohibition. He worked as a janitor, bartender and caterer, also owning one of the few cars in town for years, a Hudson he drove as chauffeur for the DRC Brown Sr. family, and also the only taxi in the valley.

The daughter of one of Hannibal’s wives attended school in Aspen, and four of his stepchildren moved to Aspen from Memphis with their mother. The two boys raced on the Aspen Valley Ski Club team in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

About the time Hannibal passed away in the 1950s, black musicians began arriving for the Aspen Music Festival, Dick Gibson’s Jazz Festivals and various club engagements. At that point, relative to other towns on the western slope of Colorado, Aspen was growing used to the sight of people of color. But it wasn’t
universally welcoming.

When famous soprano Dorothy Maynor, eventual founder of the Harlem School of the Arts, was invited to sing in Aspen in 1949 for the Goethe Bicentennial celebration, she stayed with the event’s sponsors, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, as their guest. Some said it was because the Hotel Jerome refused to take her.

Elizabeth “Pussy” Paepcke later explained, “We were trying to make the Goethe Festival interracial as well as international, which at that time nobody was willing to do. Dorothy and her husband stayed with us at our house. We couldn’t put them up in the Jerome because we didn’t want people to insult them, and people were still doing that in 1949.” It had also been Pussy’s idea to invite Albert Schweitzer to the bicentennial in order to have someone coming from Africa, which she felt was very important. As a result, culture began helping push back the color barrier in Aspen.

Commerce followed shortly. In 1952, John Sihler, the owner of the Red Onion Restaurant and Bar, brought Billie Holiday to sing during the annual Wintersköl event in January. She played for six nights, and it changed her life (she learned to ski), and Aspen’s (by putting it on the music map). The latter led to a lot more good music that continues to this day, and also to people moving to Aspen because they loved the idea of a small town in the mountains with that level of culture going on.

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"Lady Day" Billie Holiday performed for six nights during Wintersköl 1952 at the Red Onion, putting Aspen on the music map. Photo by Patrick Henry

When a photo was posted recently on Facebook of Holiday holding skis and poles in front of the Onion, former resident Don Sabin wrote, “I think one of the reasons I stayed in Aspen for 13 years was that in October 1963 I walked into the Onion and there was a photo of Billie Holiday. When I left New York City the subway walls were covered with ‘Lady Day Lives.’”

Holiday got to know the locals working at the Onion, some of whom were aspiring performers themselves. “My mother was a waitress at the Red Onion. There used to be a picture of her on the walls with Billie Holiday, singing onstage!” says Judy Haas.

In that same era Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington played in town regularly. And a star singer from Englewood, Colo., named Louise Duncan was hired at the Red Onion, the Jerome and Sunnie’s Rendezvous, becoming one of the longest-running performers in Aspen’s nightclub scene. Some years Duncan spent as much time in Aspen, where she was well known around town, as she did at home. She also cut a popular record, Louise Duncan Goes Posh, at the former Sunnie’s Rendezvous jazz club that had been renamed Stromberg’s.

By the late 1960s, Hannibal Brown’s stepson Dedrick Brittenum was one of the better junior ski racers at Aspen High School and racing with the Aspen Valley Ski Club team around the state, where black ski racers were not a common sight. One of the less evolved Aspen coaches used to tell people that Brittenum was his “dark horse.” At that point there were still no more than a dozen black families in Aspen and racism wasn’t entirely a thing of the past.

However, in 1973 the nascent National Brotherhood of Skiers (soon to be the largest primarily black ski council in America) held its first meeting in Aspen. Ben Finley and Art Clay wanted to bring black ski clubs together to talk about forming a national organization. “At that time, Aspen was the ski capital of the world,” says Finley. “I had been there, so I thought it was good. But we weren’t sure what was going to happen when all of these black people showed up in town,” he laughs. “It was toward the end of the Black Power Movement and I had a big ’fro. We were really concerned telling everyone we were coming. But it all went fine. There were no incidents whatsoever. I did hear later that they put the National Guard on alert, though.”

Clay chuckles. “The Colorado State Police turned out, I know that.” Since then the NBS has been back to Aspen/Snowmass six times for national meetings, bringing thousands of skiers every time.

Following a local legal issue over a man dancing with another man in a bar in 1976, ordinances were eventually enacted in 1979 protecting gay rights in Aspen, and soon Boulder and Denver. In the meantime, 1977 was the first year that locals and gay ski clubs from around the country decided to start holding what would become the annual Gay Ski Week in January. It was not only the first such ski event of its kind in America, but the only one anywhere for a number of years. Today it’s the largest and longest-running gay ski week in the country, and it marked its 42nd anniversary last season by bringing about 3,000 people to town for the festivities. It also raises thousands of dollars annually for the Roaring Fork Gay and Lesbian Community Fund.

While the 1800s ended with almost no people of color in Aspen, the 1900s ended with waves of Latinos moving steadily into the valley. Soon more than half of all the students in the Roaring Fork School District (Basalt and Glenwood Springs) were Latinos, and they were being underserved.

So about 20 years ago local nonprofits started to do something. That included the AVSC, which began actively recruiting Latinos with scholarships to its Base Camp program for students in the valley. They discovered that many had shied away from skiing because it was considered just for the rich, white elite.

Today, with the robust support of the community and the Aspen Skiing Company, the AVSC is awarding more than $1 million in scholarships to over 250 Latino kids annually, while other sponsors like Gorsuch provide hundreds of skis
and snowboards. Efforts to get Latino families more involved in bicycling are showing promising signs as well.

All of it is aimed at encouraging access to everything that the valley has to offer and enriching the entire community in the process. Which has really been the point of intentionally supporting local diversity for more than a century.



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