Historic Colorado photos: Burnis McCloud documents Denver’s African-American community

Burnis McCloud’s work represents an era that was otherwise missed by cameras, and his perspective reveals a deep intimacy.

The Prom Queen is crowned during Manual High School's 1961 prom. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/WH1128)five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Members of a teenage jazz band stand on a stage at a dance in Denver, Colorado. Some of the African American (Black) musicians have their hair styled in short Afros and wear thick framed black glasses. The saxophone players wear turtlenecks, suit jackets, and thick gold chains. Shows saxophones, base guitar, lead guitar, and drums. Women in white full length formal dresses and men in tuxedos are in the distance. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-134) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Members of a teenage jazz band stand on a stage at a dance in Denver, Colorado. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-134)

At Denverite we’ve been privileged to be allowed by the Denver Public Library to dive into their Western History Collection, a massive archive of Denver and Colorado history with photographs stretching back as far as the mid 1800s. But in delving into the library’s collections one cannot help but notice a lack of diversity in older images.

A group of African American (Black) men and women revelers gather at a bar on New Years Eve in Denver, Colorado. Many of the men wear party hats. One man has a cigar in his mouth and the room is filled with smoke. A bottle of champagne and empty glasses are on the bar. Decorations hang from the ceiling. Circa 1965. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-199) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A group of men and women revelers gather at a bar on New Years Eve in Denver, Colorado. Circa 1965. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-199)

Thank goodness for Burnis “Mac” McCloud, a prolific documentarian of African-American life in Denver whose work spans an impressive 40+ years. DPL researcher Randel Metz says in a blog post that McCloud’s work “stands alone” in its complete documentation of this community and time.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE HISTORIC COLORADO PHOTO SERIES: Donald Kemp | Sandra Dallas | Harry Mellon Rhoads | Charles Lillybridge
Men, women, and children stand near a building during the George Washington Carver Day Nursery dedication at 2260 Humboldt Street in the City Park West neighborhood of Denver, Colorado. Burnis McCloud stands by a camera near the group. 1966. (Clarence F. Holmes/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/X-22345) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Men, women and children stand near a building during the dedication of the George Washington Carver Day Nursery. Burnis McCloud stands by a camera near the group. 1966. (Clarence F. Holmes/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/X-22345)

Photography is an inherently biased medium. Each frame is literally the perspective of the person behind the camera. This makes it all the more crucial that a member of a community is able to document it from within. Not only does McCloud’s work represent an era that was otherwise missed by cameras, his canon goes deeper, presenting a perspective that could only be captured by a deep intimacy.

A group of African American (Black) girls and women in Girl Scout uniforms stand in formation to receive badges. A white woman in a dress uniform pins a badge reading: "Be Prepared" on a young girls sash. Other badges indicate that the girls belong to Troop 657, Metro Denver. Between 1940 and 1950. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-160) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A group of girls and women in Girl Scout uniforms stand in formation to receive badges. A woman in a dress uniform pins a badge reading: “Be Prepared” on a young girl’s sash. Between 1940 and 1950. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-160)

According to Metz, McCloud was introduced to photography at 10 years old when he found camera pieces in a junkyard. The owner of a local camera shop said he would teach the boy to use the camera if he could put it together.

McCloud moved to Denver in 1930 and worked in the State Capitol building, a position that gave him access to a number of high profile subjects like Dwight Eisenhower and Harry  Truman.

Two African American women and a man look at a file in a paneled room in Denver, Colorado. The women wear dresses with three quarter length sleeves. The man wears a suit and tie. A sign reading: "Owl Club" leans on a window in the distance. Between 1955 and 1965. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-218) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Two women and a man look at a file in a paneled room in Denver, Colorado.  A sign reading: “Owl Club” leans on a window in the distance. Between 1955 and 1965. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-218)

His body of work also includes intimate images of Martin Luther King Jr. and a very young, dapper Jesse Jackson.

But McCloud’s work is most interesting in its day-to-day depictions of life, ranging from Manual High School proms to jazz-era nightlife.

The Prom Queen is crowned during Manual High School's 1961 prom. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/WH1128) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
The Prom Queen is crowned during Manual High School’s 1961 prom. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/WH1128)

The Western History Collection possesses around 100,000 negatives from McCloud’s body of work, 3,500 prints and at least one box of “audio-visual materials.”

Metz says about 60 percent of McCloud’s work has descriptors attached and asks that if you see someone in the collection that you know, to please fill them in.

Two men, one is African American, stand inside a Duckwall variety store. Sunglasses, tricycles, handbags, irons, lamps are all for sale. between 1950 and 1970. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-92) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Two men stand inside a Duckwall variety store. Sunglasses, tricycles, handbags, irons and lamps are all for sale. Between 1950 and 1970. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-92)
An African American (Black) couple talk in a large, opulent room in an unknown location, Denver, Colorado. The woman is seated on a couch and wears a formal party dress. She gestures with one hand and looks into the face of a man who leans on the arm of the couch. He wears a tuxedo. The couple is at a function associated with a social club identified as H.D.C. S.A.-S.S. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-166) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A couple talks in a large, opulent room in an unknown location, Denver, Colorado. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-166)
A group of African American men and women, members of the Kings and Queens Social Club, pretend to be drunk at a park in the mountains near Denver, Colorado. They drape their arms around each other and stand in awkward poses. Two of the people hold Budweiser beer cans in their hands, and one man dangles a cigarette from his mouth. The ground is littered with pots, pans, a coffee pot, and papers. Between 1955 and 1965. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-183) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A group of men and women, members of the Kings and Queens Social Club, pretend to be drunk at a park in the mountains near Denver, Colorado. Between 1955 and 1965. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-183)
View of a Links Club function. An African American family sit in a theater in Denver, Colorado. A man, woman and young boy are seated in row "G" in the crowded audience. The man holds a hat on his lap. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-185) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of a Links Club function. A family sits in a theater in Denver, Colorado. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-185)
An African American (Black) couple sit in chairs in a large opulent room in an unknown location in Denver, Colorado. The woman wears a party dress and speaks to a man dressed in a tuxedo, they both hold drinks. A sign in the distance reads H.D.C., identified as a social club. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-165) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A couple sits in chairs in a large opulent room in an unknown location in Denver, Colorado. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-165)
View of a Gay Dutchess club (The Gay Dutchess) function. An African American couple sit at a table in a bar of club in Denver, Colorado. The woman wears a party dress and the man wears a tuxedo. Cigarettes and beer bottles are on the table. A white waitress carries a tray and beer bottles near the table. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-151) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of a Gay Dutchess club function. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-151)
Night view of Harry Hoffman's Cut Price Liquor store at Curtis and 18th (Eighteenth) Streets in Denver, Colorado. Windows display bottles of Calvert whiskey; neon signs read "Harry Hoffman's" "Liquor" and "Free Parking." Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-3) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Night view of Harry Hoffman’s Cut Price Liquor store at Curtis and 18th (Eighteenth) Streets in Denver, Colorado. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-3)
View of an Altruistic Club function. A group of African American women wear white formal dresses and pose in front of a stage in Denver, Colorado. The women may be attending a party or dance at the Disabled American Veterans hall. Members of a jazz band are in the distance. Circa 1955. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-94) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of an Altruistic Club function. A group of women wear white formal dresses and pose in front of a stage in Denver, Colorado. The women may be attending a party or dance at the Disabled American Veterans hall. Circa 1955. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-94)
View of an Owlettes Club function. A group of African American (Black) women sit at a table in a dining room in Denver, Colorado. One woman wears a bold polka dot dress with a full skirt and another wears a short sleeve, shirtwaist style dress with a full skirt. The table is set and a piece of chicken sits on each plate. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-202) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of an Owlettes Club function. A group of women sit at a table in a dining room. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-202)
View of a Links Club function. African American men and women gather for tea in the living room of a house in Denver, Colorado. A seated woman serves tea from a silver service. Between 1940 and 1950. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-189) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of a Links Club function. Men and women gather for tea in the living room of a house in Denver. Between 1940 and 1950. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-189)
Two African American couples, members of the La Lampions Club, sit at a table in a dance hall in Denver, Colorado. The men wear tuxedos, and the women wear party dresses. Drinks and cigarettes are on the table. A large script "A" is painted on the wall in the distance. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/http://digital.denverlibrary.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15330coll22/id/59520/rec/6) five points; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Two couples, members of the La Lampions Club, sit at a table in a dance hall in Denver, Colorado. Between 1950 and 1960. (Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/MCD-184)
PREVIOUSLY IN THE HISTORIC COLORADO PHOTO SERIES: Donald Kemp | Sandra Dallas | Harry Mellon Rhoads | Charles Lillybridge

Kevin Beaty

Author: Kevin Beaty

Kevin Beaty is a media producer with experience in a variety of settings spanning Hollywood film sets to international backpack journalism expeditions. He is on a never-ending quest to meld artful imagery, functional design and intimate storytelling. His biggest struggle in any given moment is whether to shoot stills or video.