When Adele “Della” Parker (ex Law1914) began classes in October 1911, she may or may not have expected the attention she received as she stepped from the grassy Quad into the halls of the recently built Guggenheim Law Building. Only ten women before her and fellow first-year classmate Beryl Mary Bonner had enrolled in CU's Law School since its beginning in 1892. Della's recognition was certainly justified; however, the spotlight shone more brightly on her since she was also the first Black woman to ever enter the program.
The middle daughter of eleven children, Adele Leigh Parker, was born in Rolla, Missouri around 1883 to formerly enslaved parents John Henry and Sedonia (Blackwell) Parker. Originally from Georgia, John came to Missouri about 1870, working as a shoemaker in the small town of Sherrill. He met Sedonia in Rolla, where she worked as a housekeeper for a prominent local lawyer, Edward A. Seay. John and Sedonia married in Rolla in 1872, welcoming their first child a few years later at their house at the corner of Fourth and Cedar streets. John set up shop and supported their growing family with his boot and shoe-making business.
Located nearly halfway between St. Louis and Springfield, Rolla's population was almost 2,600 in 1900, and the Parkers were one of 33 African American families making up only seven percent of Rolla's citizens. The entire family lived under one roof, with some of the older siblings working outside the home. Della and her sister Mary worked as servants, and brother Frank cooked at a local hotel. The three helped the family while sister Inez began to make a name for herself as a poet, music and elocution teacher, brother Fred was studying at Lincoln University, and the younger siblings were all attending the local schools. What pulled Della west to Denver is unknown, but her desire to continue her education was certainly a priority.
Della left Missouri most likely in 1902, traveling by train from Kansas City and arriving at Denver's Union Station. She enrolled in the University of Denver's Preparatory School, where she presumably went through the entire four-year program and was one of only a handful of Black students. Her sister Inez's career in poetry and public speaking might have inspired Della to become engaged in the school's Adelphian Literary Society, where she participated for at least two years. The group's focus was to develop "the art of speaking and literary taste" through recitations, papers, musical performances, and debates. Della graduated from DU's Prep School in June 1906, sharing in the community celebrations with four other Black graduates from East Denver, West Denver and Manual Training High Schools.
After enjoying a summer full of social activities and dances in the Five Points neighborhood with her friends, she enrolled in DU's Liberal Arts program that fall. Della soon became involved in the Inter-Graduate Association, which promoted education and held annual receptions celebrating local Black high school and college graduates. In 1907 she served on the banquet committee that honored Franklin Henry Bryant (Law1907), a fellow DU student before graduating from CU's Law School, and Manual Training High School graduate and soon-to-be CU classmate Charles Durham Campbell (A&S1912).
Though Denver's Black population in 1900 was only about 4,000 people and segregated mainly to the Five Points and Whittier neighborhoods, the areas had grown into vibrant communities that included businesses, hotels, churches, schools, meeting places and restaurants. The population rose to nearly 5,500 by the decade's end (roughly 2.5% of the city). Denver mirrored the statewide and national increase in anti-black racism in the 1910s, followed by the Ku Klux Klan's rapid rise in the 1920s. Della certainly faced housing and employment discrimination, but living in Five Points would have offered her more work, social and cultural opportunities at neighborhood establishments, clubs and churches. Della's occupation choices are primarily unknown, but one account reveals she spent time working for Mrs. C. J. (Sarah) Walker, who had an itinerant business selling hair growth tonics in Denver and around the state.
Della remained at DU for only about one year. Though she left school, she stayed active in Denver over the next two years, competing in tennis and participating in her local Eureka Literary Society discussions. At one well-attended debate, she and her partner, Mable Andrews, handily defeated their opponents, Roy Handy and Leon Morrison, on whether or not women's suffrage should be established throughout the United States. A newspaper reported that the "young men put up a great fight!"
After three years away from academic studies and recently returning to Denver from a trip home to Rolla, Della applied to CU's Law School in 1911. It's unknown what made her decide to go back to school and focus on law, but she looked forward to earning her law degree and becoming a practicing lawyer in Colorado. The attention Della received in the papers was all quite positive. Denver's Black community newspaper, The Statesman, proudly announced that "she will enjoy the double distinction of being one of the few colored students and the only one of her sex in the class...and her work here in Denver gives every hope for a bright future for her."
She moved from her home in Denver, where she boarded with Samuel and Ida McGuire in the Whittier neighborhood, to take a room at William and Sarah Bryant's house in Boulder, just down the hill from campus. There were very few housing opportunities for any female student on campus in 1911. But, for Della, racial discrimination wouldn't have even allowed her, or any other Black student, to live on campus. Boarding with families in and around the "Little Rectangle," Boulder's Black community in the Goss-Grove neighborhood, was typically the only option.
Boulder's Black community was small, but it had been established and grown steadily for nearly forty years, hitting a peak of 1.7% of the town's population in 1910 with 166 people. Despite the seemingly warm welcome, Della undoubtedly faced racial injustices, and her social life was limited to activities within the Black community. The long-established Allen Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the recently formed Second Baptist Church both served as spiritual and social hubs and would have offered Della options to create a circle of friends outside of school. There are no records to indicate how she supported herself while at school. As a single Black woman, her options in Boulder most likely were confined to working as a cook, maid, nanny, dishwasher or laundress.
Her Coloradoan yearbook class photograph stated that "punctuality is her guiding star," suggesting Della was a serious student. She again showed her debating skills by coming in second at a university oratory contest in May 1912, with The Statesman giving her front-page honors. Della, unfortunately, did not finish her studies. She was about halfway through her second year when she received a telegram requesting her quick return to Rolla, Missouri, to attend to a very sick relative. That relative was most likely her sister Mary Etta who died before Della could get home.
Little is currently known about Della's life after she returned to Missouri. While she never followed up with her law studies, she attended and graduated from Sumner High School's teaching program in St. Louis in January 1917. Sumner was the first African American high school west of the Mississippi River founded in 1875. In 1908, Sumner relocated into a newly constructed building in the bustling Black community of The Ville, and it became a beacon of quality education in the segregated St. Louis neighborhood.
By 1921 Della, who now went by Adele, lived in the western St. Louis suburb of Wellston and taught at the Lincoln School, one of several Black schools in the city. By 1930 she owned her home and, in the early 1950s, retired after nearly 40 years of teaching. Della never married and lived in the same house for over three decades. Della died in her home in Wellston on April 27, 1963, the last of her family to pass away, and was laid to rest near them back in her hometown of Rolla, Missouri.
With many libraries and archives closed during COVID-19, researching online using digitized sources has become the norm. This limitation has proved quite challenging. As opportunities open once again, we will revisit Della's story. In the meantime, if you are connected to the Parker family or have information about Della you would like to share, please contact the Heritage Center's Curator and help bring more depth to Della's life story.
- Denver Post (Denver, CO)
- Denver Star (Denver, CO)
- Missouri Sharp Shooter (Rolla, MO)
- Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
- Rolla Herald (Rolla, MO)
- Silver & Gold (Boulder, CO)
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO)
- St. Louis Star and Times (St. Louis, MO)
- The Statesman (Denver, CO)
- Coloradoan. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, 1913-1914.
- Kynewisbok. Denver, CO: University of Denver, 1905, 1907.
- Parker, Della Leigh. Class of 1914. Academic Transcript. University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.
- University of Colorado Student and Faculty Directories. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, 1907-1911.
- University of Colorado Catalogue. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, 1907-1913.
- University of Denver Catalogue. Denver, CO: University of Denver, 1905-1908.
- 1327 Arapahoe Avenue, Historic Building Inventory Record Collection, Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder, Colorado.
- Armitage, Sue, Theresa Banfield and Sarah Jacobus. “Black Women and Their Communities in Colorado,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 2, no. 2 (Summer, 1977).
- Corson, Dan. “The Black Community in Boulder, Colorado.” Report for upper-level history course. 25 November 1996. Small Document Collection, Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder, Colorado.
- Denver City Directory. Denver, CO: Ballenger & Richards, 1911.
- McLean, Polly. A Legacy of Missing Pieces: The Voices of Black Women of Boulder County. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, 2002.
- Moore, Jesse T. Jr., “Seeking a New Life: Blacks in Post-Civil War Colorado” Journal of Negro History 78, no. 3 (Summer 1993).
- “Population of Missouri by Counties and Minor Civil Divisions,” Census Bulletin (Washington D.C.) no. 32 (January 17, 1901).
- Printed Record of the Board of Education of the City of St. Louis, vol 23. St Louis: Board of Education, 1917.
- St. Louis City Directories. St. Louis, MO: Polk-Gould Directory Co., 1921-1923, 1927-1930, 1943-1944.
- Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church Documents, Charles Nilon Collection. Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder, Colorado.
- Blacks in Boulder Printed Material, Charles Nilon Collection. Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder, Colorado.
- Missouri. Phelps County. 1870-1900 U.S. census, population schedules.
- Missouri. Phelps County. 1876 state census, population schedule.
- Missouri. St. Louis County. 1930 U.S. census, population schedule.
Images and Maps
- Educational Museum Lantern Slides: Sumner High School, ca 1908. Educational Museum Collection, Missouri Historical Society.
- St. Louis, Missouri, Sheet 22, Volume Seven: Sanborn Map Company, 1909. Digital image. University of Missouri Digital Library.
- Rand McNally and Company, and Union Pacific Railroad Company. The Union Pacific System of Railroad and Steamship Lines. Chicago, 1900. Map. Library of Congress.
- Missouri. Phelps County. “Missouri Death Certificates 1910-1970.” Database and images. Missouri Secretary of State.
- Missouri. St. Louis County. “Missouri Death Certificates 1910-1970.” Database and images. Missouri Secretary of State.
- Missouri. Phelps County. Marriage Records, 1872.
- Rolla Cemetery. Rolla, Missouri. Database and images. Find a Grave.
- Naffziger, Chris. “The Forgotten Schools That Hold and Answer Key to Today’s St. Louis,” St. Louis Magazine. https://www.stlmag.com/history/architecture/forgotten-schools : 2021.
- “Five Points-Whittier Neighborhood History,” Denver Public Library. https://history.denverlibrary.org /five-points-whittier-neighborhood-history : 2021.
- “Two Men Who Helped Pave the Way for African American Activists in Denver, History Colorado. https://www.historycolorado.org/story/colorado-voices/2019/02/26/two-men-who- helped-pave-way-african-american- activists-denver : 2021.
- Reed, Ryan. “Inez C. Parker: Rolla's Poet Laureate,” Rolla Preservation Alliance. http://rollapreservation.blogspot.com/2013/01/inez-c-parker-rollas-poet-laureate.html : 2021.
Please contact the Heritage Center's Curator if you have questions or would like more specific information for any of the sources listed above.