Elvin R. Caldwell Sr. (1919–2004) was one of the most significant African American policymakers in Colorado history. An accountant and businessman, Caldwell joined many community organizations before beginning his political career in 1950 in the Colorado House of Representatives. He later served on the Denver City Council. In both positions Caldwell worked to eliminate the routine injustices suffered by Colorado’s African American community.
Elvin Caldwell was born in Denver on April 11, 1919, to Wilba and Inez Caldwell. He grew up in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood, the most prosperous black community in the West. Affluent African Americans began moving into the area in the early 1900s, and by 1911, upper-middle-class whites started moving out of the area to newer neighborhoods with modern technology such as indoor plumbing. By the time Elvin was born, Five Points was predominately a black community. At the local YMCA’s Colored Men’s Department, Elvin socialized with other boys, played billiards, read, exercised, and received help finding an apprenticeship. Five Points offered some opportunities for African Americans, but discrimination and exclusion from the true upper classes persisted, leading Wilba and Inez to protest inequality. This had a profound effect on Elvin’s determination to end inequality for minorities.
Caldwell graduated from Eastside High School in 1937, excelling in track. He received a track scholarship to attend the University of Colorado and then the University of Denver for two years. In 1941 he married Frank “Frankie” Harriette Webb, a teacher. Their marriage lasted sixty years, and they had four children: Elvin Jr., John, Kenneth, and Frances. During World War II, Elvin Caldwell Sr. served as a chief statistician and the assistant superintendent for production at the Remington Arms Company, which manufactured .30-caliber ammunition, employed 19,500 workers, and produced 6.5 million rounds a day at the height of the war. After World War II, the Denver Ordnance Plant ceased operations and became a surplus plant employing only 600. Many blacks now found themselves unemployed while returning black servicemen faced discrimination. No longer content to live as second-class citizens, many engaged in demonstrations and sit-ins during the 1950s. For Elvin Caldwell Sr., the civil rights movement brought opportunities in the political arena. Where others participated in grassroots activism, Caldwell took his belief that all Americans are citizens who deserve full rights to the state legislature.
Politician and Organizer
In 1950, at the age of thirty-one, Caldwell was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. He served in the state legislature from 1950 to 1955 and as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1952. When he was elected to the Denver City Council in 1955, Caldwell became the first African American to serve on a city council seat west of the Mississippi. He served on the council for twenty-eight years (seven terms), with five spent as president of the council.
By 1958, the Colorado Urban Renewal Law was passed, and shortly thereafter the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) was created to eliminate slum housing with assistance from federal grants. Slum conditions came about in part because of the white exodus into the suburbs and discriminatory lending and housing policies by banks and homebuilders. For instance, the mortgages covered by the 1944 GI Bill were for new houses built in all-white neighborhoods, which meant that African Americans could not apply for them. Banks could legally discriminate by maintaining that home loans in black neighborhoods were not a good investment. It was not until 1968 that discriminatory lending practices became illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act. At this time, Caldwell’s leadership brought about funding for the Skyline Urban Renewal Project and the Denver General Hospital facility, both of which benefited Denver’s black neighborhoods.
Caldwell fought and won against institutionalized discrimination in employment in Denver. Until the 1970s, nonwhites were barred from serving as judges or being promoted within the police force and could only serve in the one African American fire station. Caldwell proactively contested this unjust practice. Under Caldwell’s leadership, Colorado implemented its first Fair Employment Practices Act. On the city council, Caldwell also fought to end discrimination against minorities at the State Home for Dependent Children, Clayton College, and the Park Hill Golf Course. In 1980 Caldwell received his last political appointment when Denver mayor William H. McNichols Jr. named him manager of safety. Caldwell was the first black member of a Denver mayoral cabinet.
Caldwell also took leadership roles in community organizations. He served as a board member for the Glenarm Branch of the YMCA, the Boy Scouts of America, and PAL of Denver, where he implemented programs to help youth. He also served on the board of directors for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Opportunities Industrialization Center, the Denver Improvement Association, the Five Points Businessmen’s Association, and the Colorado Municipal League. Under both McNichols and Mayor Federico Peña, Caldwell was a member of the Commission on Community Relations, which addressed issues of race, ethnicity, and cultural diversity. He helped to create funding for the Denver Center of Performing Arts through tax initiatives. An accomplished businessman, Caldwell was one of the founders of the Equity Savings and Loan Association, the International Opportunity Life Insurance Company, and the Black Municipal League. He helped the poor and elderly as part of the Urban League, Senior Support Services, and as a member of the Shorter Community AME Church. These diverse organizations and institutions had a long-standing tradition of establishing African American self-help initiatives that emphasized economic opportunity, instilled morals, and encouraged racial solidarity in the black community.
Honors and Legacies
Elvin R. Caldwell died on April 30, 2004, at the age of eighty-five. Before passing he was honored several times, beginning in 1990, when the Denver City Council created the Elvin R. Caldwell Community Service Plaza. On April 26, 2003, the creation of the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library honored Caldwell’s many years of public service in conjunction with Omar Blair’s work to desegregate schools.
Caldwell is remembered not only for working tirelessly to eradicate Jim Crow laws and dismantle institutionalized discrimination but for displaying patience with a US legal system that denied him and all minorities the rights entitled to all American citizens. This earned him the ire of more militant black advocacy groups; he once received threats from the Black Panthers. But Caldwell did not let any opposition, even from his own community, stop him. His faith and understanding that change does not come quickly kept him focused on his vision of a better America. He once said, “On life’s journey, it is better if you can resolve things in a calm, sensible manner . . . It may take longer, but you can usually get more done.” Throughout his life, he recognized the importance of family and community. Elvin R. Caldwell served as both a politician and a community leader, dedicating his life to obtaining equality for minorities.