History of first black Arapahoe County deputy highlighted

Memorial of Henry Wagoner donated to museum for Black History Month

From left, Deputy Ronald Luton, Deputy Muhtalar Dickson and Capt. Ken McKlem stand next to a display honoring Henry Wagoner, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office’s first black deputy, who joined the office in 1880.
From left, Deputy Ronald Luton, Deputy Muhtalar Dickson and Capt. Ken McKlem stand next to a display honoring Henry Wagoner, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office’s first black deputy, who joined the office in 1880.
Courtesy of Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office on Twitter

An activist in the Underground Railroad, anti-slavery writer and prominent Denver businessman became the first black deputy in the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office in 1880, according to the agency.

Henry Wagoner traveled a long road to becoming a law enforcement officer, and his history still makes waves. In honor of Black History Month, the sheriff's office donated a framed memorial of Wagoner to the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center in Denver.

It's not known how Wagoner, who wore many hats in a life that took him from Maryland to Colorado, decided to work in law enforcement, but his reputation likely played a role.

“He was a prominent citizen and respected member of the black community and the city and county residents as a whole, and as such was probably well known to Sheriff Spangler who appointed him,” said Capt. Ken McKlem, who is known as the Arapahoe sheriff's history buff. “He served from 1880-1883, all under Spangler's term.”

Wagoner was born in 1816 in Hagerstown, Maryland, to a German father and an African-American mother freed from slavery. That's according to History Colorado, a state agency that houses Colorado's official historic preservation office.

After working with the Underground Railroad in Baltimore, he headed west and worked as a primary school teacher in Ohio and Missouri, according to History Colorado. In 1843, Wagoner moved to Ontario, Canada, a popular end point of the Underground Railroad. As an active participant in the anti-slavery movement, he met and corresponded with prominent abolitionists and cultivated a close friendship with Frederick Douglass. Over the years, Wagoner also worked as a typesetter and journalist for several anti-slavery newspapers.

Wagoner moved to Denver in 1865, established a number of businesses and came to be known as one of the wealthiest African-Americans in Colorado, according to History Colorado. He fought for equal access to education for Denver's black community and taught reading and writing to black adults.

“A firm believer in the principles of democracy, Wagoner was appointed a clerk in the first Colorado Legislature in 1876,” History Colorado's website says.

Soon after, Wagoner joined the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office in 1880. That same year, the Denver Police Department hired its first black police officer, Isaac Brown, according to the department. At the time, Denver was the seat — the governmental center — of Arapahoe County, and remained so until 1902, according to the county.

The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office awarded its Meritorious Service Medal posthumously to Wagoner at its awards ceremony, according to a September tweet by the office.

McKlem proposed awarding Wagoner the medal, and the office's awards committee and Sheriff Tyler Brown approved it with all other awards for last year's ceremony, McKlem said.

It's “similar to how we did posthumous medals for the three line-of-duty deaths from 1889, 1945 and 1983,” which were given a few years before under former Sheriff David Walcher, McKlem said. Usually, several Meritorious Service Medals are awarded per year, he added.

McKlem also proposed donating the memorial of Wagoner to the museum, which he was familiar with through his research on Wagoner. He plays a similar role to Dean Christopherson, a Denver police officer who runs the Denver Police Museum and has researched Denver's historic black officers. 

“If one of us finds a connection to a historic person and then finds a connection to each other's agencies, we share the lead,” McKlem said.        

For more on Wagoner, see his page on the History Colorado website here.


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