Juanita Gray Community Service Awards
and Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame
The Denver Public Library on Feb. 4 honored three African-American community leaders at the Juanita Gray Community Service Awards and the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The event was held at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Five Points and kicks off the library’s celebration of Black History Month.
Honored at the ceremony were:
Juanita Gray Community Service Award Winners
Taliah Abdullah. Working as a librarian at the Pauline Robinson Branch Library in north Denver, Taliah Abdullah developed a love for working with the community. Her experience in public, school and academic libraries led her to her current position as the site coordinator for the Dahlia campus of Health and Well-Being of the Mental Health Center of Denver. There she oversees free and low-cost mental health and literacy programs that serve the Northeast Park Hill community, specifically scheduling monthly programs that help protect and nurture mental and physical health of the community. She is also a strong voice for abused and neglected children by serving as a court-appointed special advocate for the City and County of Denver. Inspiring women and girls to take care of themselves, Abdullah also serves as the Denver city captain for GirlTrek, a national health organization that encourages wellness through walking for the African-American community. She has recruited more than 200 women since she started walking in City Park and regularly encourages others to take care of themselves so that they can take care of each other.
Abdullah holds a Master of Library Science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Bachelor of Elementary Education from Eastern Illinois University.
Melissa Renee Wilson. As a student at East High School, Melissa Renee Wilson can be found cheering on the things that matter most. As a cheerleader, she motivates the Angels as on the field and on the court and in her personal life, she motivates others to better their community and serve those in need. Wilson volunteers her time for Epworth United Methodist Church and has served meals to Denver’s homeless population at the Annual Denver Feed-a-Family event, a continuation of the Daddy Bruce Thanksgiving Dinner. Her efforts don’t stop there. In 2014, she planned and organized a 36-hour fast, raising funds for World Vision, a global Christian humanitarian organization. Under her leadership, 20 youth collected pledges and volunteered at a local nursing home. She was also instrumental in organizing a project for youth to experience life on the streets by having teens construct their own cardboard houses and sleep in them, giving them a first-hand look at homelessness. Wilson is scheduled to graduate in May and plans to attend Benedict College.
Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame Induction
Charlie Burrell. Often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of classical music,” Charlie Burrell has gained a hearty following as the first African-American musician to break the color barrier in classical music. A base player by trade, the 96-year-old Burrell has performed with the Denver and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras and regularly performed with other jazz musicians in the Five Points Neighborhood. His notoriety earned him a mural on the Deep Rock Water Building on East 26th Avenue, demonstrating his impact on the Denver music community.
Burrell was born in Toledo, Ohio and raised in Detroit, Michigan where he excelled in music. He continued his musical studies at Cass Technical High School and Wayne State University in Detroit before being drafted into an all-black Naval Unit at the start of World War II. He arrived in Denver in 1949 and broke the color barrier by being the first black person under contract with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. In 1959, he also became the first black performer to play in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Opera. He retired in 1999.
His memoirs, The Life of Charlie Burrell: Breaking the Color Barrier in Classical Music, was published in 2015 and he has been the subject of a segment on KCFR’s Colorado Matters program.
About the Juanita Gray Community Service Awards and Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame
A former library staff member and community advocate, Juanita Gray helped start the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame in 1973. The Juanita Gray award honors African-American men, women and youth who make outstanding contributions to the Denver Metro area and who exemplify the ideals and spirit represented by Gray’s commitment to the Denver community. A community-driven committee works with the library to nominate and select the winners of the award and the Hall of Fame inductees.