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Dr. Joseph H. P. Westbrook, Early Denver Civil Rights Activist

Dr. Joseph Henry Peter Westbrook was a prominent Denver physician and African American civil rights leader.  Born in 1878 in Mississippi, he graduated from Fisk College and Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

In 1907 he came to Denver and started his medical practice.

A doctor and pharmacy owner in Denver for 35 years, he became Assistant City Physician and was on the staff of Denver General Hospital for 17 years.  Deeply involved in several fraternal organizations, he was Grand Chancellor of a lodge of the Knights of Pythias, on officer in a local Elks Lodge, and a Masonic Grand Master who was instrumental in building a new Masonic Hall in the Five Points area.  An active entrepreneur, Dr. Westbrook helped incorporate the Denver Independent newspaper and served on the Denver Chamber of Commerce.  He was an officer of the city’s Interracial Commission and was on the Board of Directors of a branch of the YMCA.  He was a Sunday school superintendent and important member of the NAACP.  He lived in a modest house in Five Points with his wife Adela.

From the 1860s most African Americans voted Republican because that was the “Party of Lincoln,” the party that had freed the slaves.  But by the early 1900s many black people were becoming disillusioned with the Republicans and were seeking reconciliation with the Democratic Party.

Westbrook was one of these dissatisfied voters, and he went so far as to form the “National Negro Anti-Taft League” when William Howard Taft became the Republican presidential candidate in 1908.  Prior to that year’s Democratic National Convention, which was held in Denver, he led a delegation to the Resolutions Committee of the Democratic Party seeking to have a civil rights plank placed on the Democratic national platform.  This request was denied, however, and Taft won the election.

After this black enthusiasm for the Democratic Party decreased again for a number of years, and in 1924 Westbrook was selected to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention that nominated Calvin Coolidge as its presidential candidate.

He was one of the original stakeholders in an African American agricultural colony that was formed near Greeley in 1910.  In fact it was Dr. Westbrook who came up with the name of the colony; it was named Dearfield, for he said that the farm fields there would “be very dear to us.”

Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook is perhaps best known to history for being a light-skinned African American who “passed as a white man” to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan.  At great risk to his life, he used his Klan membership to learn of the hate group’s upcoming activities and warn the black community.

In August 1939 he addressed the opening of a conference at the Shorter African Community Church.  When he finished he took his seat and suddenly died of a heart attack.  He was 61 years old.  The headline in the Denver Statesman was, “Dr. J.H.P. Westbrook, Scholar, Civic Builder, Race Factor, and Fraternalist Suddenly Passes.”  He is buried at Fairmount Cemetery not far from the Gate Lodge in Block B.

By Garry O’Hara