The historic Shorter AME Church in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood is a community treasure that has stood the test of time. Locals know it as an arts complex and home to Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. But those with a longer memory know it as Denver’s first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
Shorter’s storied past begins with two women, Mary Randolph, who was born to free parents in New York, and Mary Smith, who was born into slavery. Together they formed the Colored Methodist Church in 1866, 10 years before Colorado became a state.
In the beginning, 18 church members met in a log cabin on land along the Platte River donated by Major Fillmore, a Union officer in the Civil War. That served as the first church structure until 1878, when a larger brick building was erected on the corner of 19th and Stout Streets.
Two years later, in 1880, the church was named Shorter Chapel in honor of the presiding Bishop James A. Shorter.
With a growing congregation, the church sold the building at 19th and Stout in 1886 and began looking at other sites to build a new church home. Shorter Chapel, however, experienced opposition from neighbors at various sites who didn’t want a Black church in their community. The church purchased three lots on the corner of 23rd and Washington in 1887 and began building. The new structure, built in a Gothic style with two pointed spires, was completed in August 1889.
Parishioners enjoyed their new church home for 35 years until April 9, 1925, when the Denver Ku Klux Klan allegedly set fire to and destroyed the building. Undeterred, the congregation rebuilt and reopened their church nearly one year later, on Easter morning, 1926. This was no small feat for a community subjected to Jim Crow laws and whose members had jobs with modest incomes. Built in a Spanish Revival style, the church still stands today.
Many Denver icons have attended Shorter AME Church, including actress Hattie McDaniel from “Gone with the Wind” and entrepreneur Madame CJ Walker. Shorter also has been the faith home for countless DU alumni. The University of Denver, founded as Colorado Seminary, has a long association with the Methodist church. According to University archives, all of DU’s Black alumnae from 1900 to 1945 were associated with either Shorter or Scott United Methodist Church, Denver’s two oldest Black Methodist churches.
In a recent exhibit at DU’s Anderson Academic Commons, “Seeking Grace: Black Alumnae at the University of Denver,” we meet Grace Mabel Andrews (AB 1908), the second Black woman to graduate from DU. Her ties to Shorter AME Church were chronicled in a news story by The Colorado Statesman dated June 18, 1921. Andrews had been teaching in Greenwood, Oklahoma, during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which she witnessed. She returned to Shorter to raise funds and awareness for the victims. Here’s that account:
“The citizens of Denver arose to a great occasion last Sunday night when Shorter Church was crowded to the doors in a joint meeting of the Denver Colored Civic Association and the Denver Branch of the NAACP. It was a meeting called to aid the victims and sufferers at Tulsa as well as the flood victims at Pueblo.
“The first speaker was Miss G. Mable Andrews, a Denver girl who has taught in the Tulsa schools for a number of years. Her recital of the awful scenes and conditions prevalent during the Tulsa riots was both graphic and heart-rending.”
Fast forward 60 years to a new generation of DU alumnae. Shorter AME Church, having occupied the building at 23rd and Washington for 92 years, outgrew the space and moved to a new location in 1981. Without a church family, the building sat vacant until the mid-’80s when leaders of the Five Points community invited Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD) to occupy and maintain the building.
This coincided with a movement that saw communities across the nation rally to save former churches from decay or obliteration by turning them into thriving art centers, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Alumna Cleo Parker Robinson (BA ’70, Hon. PhD ’91) founded her world-renowned dance ensemble in 1970 and by the late ’80s, the established arts organization was looking for space to grow. With support of the Denver City Council and the Denver Housing Authority, Parker Robinson and her husband, Tom Robinson, were able to lease the property in 1987 for $1 per year. In December 2021, after a diligent capital campaign fundraiser, CPRD purchased the historic Shorter AME facility and now holds the title.
Over the years, CPRD has worked with donors, funders and architects from across the country to renovate the three-level, 24,000-square-foot facility, all while maintaining the building’s historic demeanor.
“The interior was in significantly deteriorated condition when we began theater renovations in 1987,” Parker Robinson recalls. “Only pigeons, mice and their friends were living there.”
The original sanctuary was renovated into a 240-seat theater with built-in tiers, allowing patrons to see the dancers’ feet no matter where they sit. The church basement was converted into three dance studios for the academy and ensemble, while the north side of the building became dressing rooms and offices. An annex and an elevator were added in the 1990s.
For decades, most of the theater seats were wooden church pews repurposed from the sanctuary. But in 2013, Tom Robinson saw an eBay listing for theater seats from movie director Steven Spielberg’s personal theater in California. The seats were purchased, and over a weekend, the CPRD ensemble and volunteers installed the 240 seats. These are still in use today.
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance has called the Shorter AME building home for 35 years. The organization has transformed the facility into a cultural hub for the Rocky Mountain region in its mission to perform and present African American modern dance and dance traditions from around the globe. The dance company’s five pillars are the ensemble, academy, theater, education programs and art in well-being.
Over the years, the beloved institution has grown into what many affectionately call “The Village.”
“For our village, it is a significant honor to stand on the shoulders of our ancestors,” Parker Robinson says of the building that has connected the community for generations.
“This building remains a sacred space for us, with nearly 140 years of history,” she adds. “There is an unmistakable energy and spirit to the historic Shorter AME facility. It has been the site of so many of the life events of the community—births, weddings and home-goings, but also the location of significant events in the ongoing movement for civil rights, justice and equity.”
Throughout its history, the Shorter building has been a safe space for African American culture, community and now the arts. Under the stewardship of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, that’s likely to continue for years to come.
SOURCES: https://www.shortercommunityame.org/history; https://www.thechristianrecorder.com/150-year-history-of-shorter-ame-church-denver-colorado/;