Artifacts tell the true story of displaced Aurarians
Politicians and planners once depicted the neighborhood as 'poor and deteriorating.' A recent archaeological dig reveals otherwise.
Fragments of fine china, a carnival coin and a child’s tea set are among the unearthed artifacts that tell the story of hundreds of families, most of them Latino, who were displaced in the 1960s and ’70s to make room for the higher-education campus in Auraria, Denver’s oldest neighborhood.
The 44-piece collection will debut Aug. 23 as part of History Colorado’s “I Am Auraria” exhibition on display at the Auraria Library. The exhibit is the culmination of a yearlong Museum of Memory project, which shares the stories of hundreds of displaced families.
“A snapshot of history” is how curator and Archaeology student Shawn Coble described the artifacts that were uncovered by a team of students and their professors during an archaeological dig last year at the Ninth Street Historic Park.
Aurarians have long resisted the depiction of the predominantly Latino area as “poor and deteriorating” by politicians and planners to justify removing the families to make way for a rebuild in a high-flood-risk area.
The artifacts, which date back to 1864 and into the 1950s, tell the story of an active, family-based area that was not as poor and deteriorated as it was presented to be.
“One of the goals was to not only understand the early settlers and people who were living there, but also was the area really that dilapidated? It wasn’t,” said Michael Kolb, professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory of Anthropology at MSU Denver. “And I think that’s the benefit of archaeology: It’s what we use to ground truth.
“It was an energetic working-class neighborhood contributing to Denver’s economy,” he added.
Aurarians argue that the prejudices of the larger white population in the city influenced the decision to uproot the families. Would it have been more difficult if the area had been predominantly white?
Scholars Brian Page and Eric Ross wrote in the journal Urban Geography that in Denver, “the term ‘blight’ as applied to Auraria signified a minority-filled urban space that was poor and deteriorating yet capable of overrunning the rest of the city if left unchecked.”
Kolb and the Anthropology Department are preparing for the next phase of their archaeological digs with the long-term goal of housing the artifacts in a museum that will help educate students about the history and legacy of those who were displaced.
Students from MSU Denver, Community College of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver will participate in two simultaneous digs throughout the fall semester.
One of the sites will be near the first dig, behind the line of historic houses on 9th Street. The other will be south of West Classroom, where early settlers such as the Russell brothers occupied the area.
Scholarships for descendants
Are you a direct descendant of someone who resided in the Auraria neighborhood between 1955 and 1973? Learn about the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship, which provides free college tuition to all direct descendants of those displaced from their homes before the campus was built in the 1970s.
Coble, one of the two students who curated the exhibit, is eager to begin the next phase and finish his last semester of undergraduate studies doing what he has loved to do since he was a child. Growing up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the site of a key Civil War battle, Coble spent most of his childhood digging and searching for items waiting to be resurfaced.
“As a kid, I would just scour where the battlefield was, and I have this whole case of musket balls and belt buckles and straight razors from the Civil War,” said Coble. “You’re literally holding a piece of history.”