The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library is located in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver. Named for Omar Blair and Elvin Caldwell, two prominent local civil rights leaders, it is the largest of Denver Public Library's neighborhood branches and one of only five Black research libraries in American public library systems. It includes a circulating collection, a unique assortment of artifacts and documents chronicling the contribution of Black people to the city of Denver and the American West, and a museum and exhibit space. The brainchild of Denver’s first Black mayor, Wellington Webb, the facility replaced the original Five Points Branch Library and opened in 2003.
The original Five Points Branch Library consisted of a single room in a shared building. It held a collection of nonfiction paperbacks and magazines but did little to meet the community’s needs or showcase the rich history of the historically Black neighborhood that it served. In 1999 Wellington Webb, Denver’s first Black mayor, and his wife, Wilma, began pushing to replace it with a larger library that would better meet the needs of the neighborhood while also celebrating and preserving the area’s history, similar to the New York Public Library’s renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem.
As part of the planning process for the new library, a commission collected local historical artifacts and consulted with residents to develop a vision for the new library as a civic hub for the neighborhood. The new library was named for Omar Blair, a Tuskegee Airman during World War II and the first Black president of the Denver Public Schools Board, and Elvin Caldwell, a local politician and the first African American to be elected to a seat on a city council west of the Mississippi River.
The site for the new library was the corner of Twenty-Fourth and Welton Streets, just a few blocks from the heart of Five Points. Local firms OZ Architecture and Harold Massop Associates designed the three-story, 40,000-square-foot building, which opened in April 2003. The symmetrical brick-and-glass facade features subtle neoclassical and Italianate styling.
Blair-Caldwell is home to several notable artworks. At the entrance, a pair of fifteen-foot bronze and mosaic reliefs depict a man and woman of African American descent. Crafted by sculptor Thomas Jay Warren, the reliefs are intended as a physical reminder of the “noble strength, bearing and pioneering spirit of African American people in the West.” Inside, a mural called “Freedom's Legacy” by Kenyan painter Yvonne Munde decorates the arch above the check-out desk on the first floor. It commemorates thirty-four civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and local leaders Wellington and Wilma Webb, Omar Blair, and Elvin Caldwell.
Blair-Caldwell is one of only a handful of institutions nationwide to include a circulating collection, archive, and museum. The circulating collection and other local branch operations occupy the first floor.
The heart of the library is its second-floor special collections area. It houses a wide range of archival documents and artifacts, including professional papers, doctoral theses, personal journals, and groundbreaking implements from various construction projects during Mayor Webb's time in office. In addition to a wealth of primary documents, Blair-Caldwell’s special collections also include specialized research materials not available in the rest of the public library system, including various Black periodicals and community and national newspapers on microfilm. This collection includes rare copies of the Black Panther Party’s official newspaper, the Black Panther.
The special collections area also includes a gallery featuring small displays on significant Black businesses, organizations, and individuals, focusing on those who helped build the Denver community.
The library’s third floor houses its museum. Blair-Caldwell displays several permanent exhibits that chronicle the history of Black Americans and their contributions to the development of the West, particularly in and around the Five Points neighborhood. There are exhibits on leaders of color born in Colorado, current African American state legislators, and a mockup of the mayor’s office to commemorate Wellington Webb’s time as the first Black mayor of Denver.
In addition to its permanent exhibits, Blair-Caldwell puts on temporary exhibitions every month in the Charles and Dorothy Cousins Changing Gallery. The library also uses the gallery to display the works of local artists, allowing them to show their work in a professional setting.