Former home of Fort Collins' first known Black high school graduate is now a historic landmark
At first glance, the house on 308 Cherry Street in Fort Collins might not be much to look at. But the modest, 600-square-foot, magenta-colored structure was once home to Virgil Thomas, who became the first known African American to graduate from a Fort Collins high school in 1940.
On Sept. 21, the Fort Collins City Council voted to approve a new landmark designation for the house. This will be Fort Collins’ first historical landmark that recognizes the city’s Black history.
While Thomas was just one of many people of color who contributed to life and culture in Northern Colorado, residents hope this new landmark status will be a stepping stone toward elevating more diverse stories from Fort Collins’ history.
To learn more about this historical designation and its larger impact, Colorado Edition spoke to homeowner and lawyer Kim Baker Medina, and member of Fort Collins’ BIPOC Alliance core team, Rahshida Perez.
These highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity
Erin O’Toole: Let me start with you, Kim. Tell us how you first learned that the house you own on 308 Cherry Street was of such significance?
Kim Baker Medina: Actually, when we purchased the house, my husband and I, in 2013, we reached out to the city of Fort Collins to find out if it had historical significance. And interestingly enough, at that point, the city told us it did not. Because the city was looking at historical significance in a different way, so that they were primarily looking at whether it was architecturally important or unique.
And then this past year, during Black History Month, the city contacted us and told us that our home would be part of a Black History Month tour because it had been the home of one of the early African American families in Fort Collins. So that was really exciting for us to learn the history of the house and also to see that the city had shifted their definition of what was important historically and what was significant.
O’Toole: So once you discovered the house was once home to Virgil Thomas, what have you learned about his life and upbringing?
Baker Medina: The city of Fort Collins actually did the research, and they did a great job on that. They researched not just the Thomas family, but a lot of the families that lived in that neighborhood. But Virgil Thomas, from what we've been told, was the first African American student to graduate from Fort Collins High School. He was an athlete, played football at Fort Collins High School and then also played in a baseball league in the city of Fort Collins. He graduated and got a college scholarship and later joined the military.
So it's an interesting history, and it's interesting when you read about not just the Thomas family, but about the other families in the neighborhood and what life was like at that time. Also at that time the city of Fort Collins had a huge (Ku Klux) Klan presence. Fort Collins, even up until the '60s, was white trade only in downtown. And these homes are just a few blocks from downtown. So I think it's really important for us to remember what life was like then and look at what life is like now for people in Fort Collins and for communities of color.
O’Toole: Rahshida, I understand you work with the BIPOC Alliance core team in Fort Collins. Tell us a bit about that and how and why you came to work there.
Rahshida Perez: We have worked to do so many things for the BIPOC community, not focusing on any one particular community, but focusing on BIPOC communities who are regularly unseen and left to be unheard and uncared for.
We worked to help get Northern Coloradans of color vaccinated in the height of the pandemic because we are all very aware of the issues that people of color have with government and in our bodies medically. We also work with businesses of color, supporting them and highlighting them. We work with mental health. We have 15 scholarships that we're about to release for mental health for BIPOC people who self-identify as needing mental support.
We are also very aware of our history, how we've been treated, the things that our ancestors had to deal with, and the trauma that still exists within us. But what brought me to BIPOC Alliance is the fact that we are rooted in joy. We have monthly community ceremonies that heal this as a community, using ancestral Indigenous practices and rooting us to the very land we stand on.
These practices are so important to keep alive all of the stories, like Kim just said. You know, the homes of the African American or Black people that lived in Fort Collins — a lot of them were knocked down, so they don't exist anymore. Keeping any ancestral or historical value is so important to us because so much of it has already been torn down. So BIPOC Alliance is working to preserve that and to support communities of color.
O’Toole: Rahshida, why do you think it is that this is the first landmark in the city that recognizes Black history in Fort Collins?
Perez: Unfortunately for me, it's not surprising. So much of our history has been suppressed or hidden. America doesn't want us to believe that we're supposed to be here. And that's why Mr. Thomas' house and the preservation of that is so important to black history.
"Mr. Thomas’ house really made me feel like we are supposed to be here."
My family and I moved here from Southern California. We've been here about seven years, and I've got to tell you that until I learned about Mr. Thomas’ home and the preservation, I never felt rooted here, I never felt welcome. Despite the fact that I am raising two small children in the Poudre School District, am very active within that school district, and I'm also a small business owner and I'm very rooted in the business community, I still very much felt like I'm an invader here.
Mr. Thomas' house really made me feel like we are supposed to be here. We were meant to be here, and that's a huge thing for myself and my family, and I'm trying to keep my emotions in check here.
O’Toole: I want to pose this question to both of you. Kim, I'll just start with you. What is the biggest takeaway from the landmark status for the Virgil Thomas house?
Baker Medina: I think there's a lot of things. I think one is what we talked about earlier that making sure that when we tell our history, we tell everyone's history. I think it's important for those of us who want to be allies to communities of color that we give communities of color the space to tell their stories. And so that doesn't just mean space to talk about it, but also physical space and preserving that physical space so that so that communities can tell, tell their stories. So I think that that for me is a really important takeaway
O’Toole: And Rahshida, what about for you the biggest takeaway from this landmark status? Or you know, what else might this lead to?
Perez: I am grateful to you, Kim, for being open to this process and to preserving this home for the Black community. I hope and wish that there were more people like you, and I honestly, it gives me hope for Black Americans and people of color to root ourselves more in Fort Collins. To feel more secure in our space here and to feel more willing to speak up and to be more able to purchase property and hopefully on Cherry Street. I'd love to see us there again.
I see a future where our voices are heard. And beyond being heard, I see a future for my children and for children of color feeling — well not just feeling, actually truly being equal. So I think it's important that this home is being preserved. And I look forward to seeing more and learning more about Black history in Fort Collins.