Press Release

History Colorado Presents New Exhibition Highlighting All-Black Debutante Club in the Mile High City

Exhibition Celebrates Black Excellence and Recognizes the Contributions of the Owl Club of Denver

DENVER — May 2, 2024 — On May 10, 2024, the History Colorado Center will open a new mezzanine exhibition, Owl Club of Denver: Legacies of Excellence, which explores the rich traditions of a prominent all-Black debutante cotillion club in the Mile High City. Built from oral histories, and featuring a remarkable collection of photographs, Owl Club of Denver: Legacies of Excellence, recounts the rarely told history of debutante culture from the perspective of African Americans who were historically excluded from the beauty standards of this European-born tradition.

Luke Perkins, Manager of Communications and Public Relations
303.866.3670 | 

Founded in 1941 by eight hardworking railroad pullman, waiters, and businessmen, The Owl Club of Denver was created to recognize the academic excellence of young African American women from Denver. Drawing early membership from the Five Points, Whittier, and Park Hill neighborhoods – which were some of the only areas where Black Denverites could live in the 1940s as a result of restrictive covenants and redlining – this social club provided a safe space where community members could feel a sense of belonging and celebrate one another’s achievements.

“The Owl Club of Denver set the stage for many Black Coloradans who became anchors of their communities,” said Tyler Allen, Exhibit Developer & Public Historian for History Colorado. “This exhibition gives us the chance to celebrate and honor these young debutantes as well as this vital organization that continues to uplift its community to this day."

While debutante culture originated in Europe as a way to debut young women who were eligible for marriage, it took on a different role for African Americans, and organizations like the Owl Club became spaces to defy stereotypes placed on Black people and their culture.

“The young women recognized by the Owl Club were selected for the core of their character and their contributions to the community as well as their academic success,” Allen said. “Rather than preparing women for marriage or acceptance into high society, African American debutante clubs provided opportunities for professional development and networking, as well as chances to become accustomed to being in spaces outside of their protected and familiar communities.”

Prominent Owl Club debutantes include:

  • Condoleezza Rice, the first female African American Secretary of State and first woman to serve as the National Security Advisor
  • Charleszine “Terry” Nelson, retired Senior Special Collections and Community Resource Manager of the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library
  • Allegra “Happy” Haynes, former executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation 

Beyond celebrating the successes of debutantes, Owl Club of Denver: Legacies of Excellence also recognizes the contributions of Black women and men to communities and families.

“This story debunks the misconception that Black men are not present in their families' day-to-day lives by showing us the presence of fathers, uncles, brothers, and other male role models,” Allen said. “The men who founded the club did so with their own resources. They created something that benefits the entire Black community and the fact that it has continued for so long speaks volumes of the benefits it brings.”

Owl Club of Denver: Legacies of Excellence is possible thanks to the collections maintained by the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library branch of the Denver Public Library. The exhibition opens to the public on May 10, 2024, at the History Colorado Center located at 1200 N Broadway. The History Colorado Center is open daily from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and provides free general admission to kids 18 and under every day.

About History Colorado
History Colorado is a division of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and a 501(c)3 non-profit that has served more than 75,000 students and 500,000 people in Colorado each year. It is a 144-year-old institution that operates eleven museums and historic sites, a free public research center, the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation which provides technical assistance, educational opportunities, and other access to archaeology and historic preservation, and the History Colorado State Historical Fund (SHF), which is one of the nation’s largest state funded preservation programs of its kind. More than 70% of SHF grants are allocated in rural areas of the state. Additionally, the offices of the State Archaeologist and the State Historic Preservation Officer are part of History Colorado. 

History Colorado’s mission is to create a better future for Colorado by inspiring wonder in our past. We serve as the state’s memory, preserving and sharing the places, stories, and material culture of Colorado through educational programs, historic preservation grants, collecting, outreach to Colorado communities, the History Colorado Center and Stephen H. Hart Research Center in Denver, and 10 other museums and historic attractions statewide. History Colorado is one of only six Smithsonian Affiliates in Colorado. Visit, or call 303-HISTORY, for more information. #HistoryColorado