“The Valley is My Soul”
In Conversation with Jeannette Stribling-Bell
A Multigenerational African American History in the San Luis Valley

by Brandon Gonzales
Historian/Researcher | Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area

Jeannette Stribling-Bell                  Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

February 2024

The San Luis Valley is one of the most unique places in the United States, not just because of its seclusion by the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains and vast picturesque landscapes, but also because of its diverse people, and their unique histories and heritage. In the summer of 2022, I attended a lecture series hosted by the Fort Garland Museum to discuss and commemorate the lives of the Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers were six all-black cavalry regiments that were formed by the United States Army during the Civil War, and continued service after the war in both the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. One of these regiments, the Ninth Cavalry regiment, was stationed out of Fort Garland from 1876 to 1879. It was at this event to celebrate the Fort Garland Museum’s new exhibit on the Buffalo Soldiers that I was introduced to Jeannette Stribling-Bell, an African American retired educator from the Denver area, but who has generational roots in the San Luis Valley. Jeannette and her husband John Bell, have been key collaborators with the Fort Garland Museum in celebrating and documenting the lives and history of the Buffalo Soldiers. At this event Jeannette introduced herself to the crowd and went on to discuss a brief history of her life and her family, who moved to the San Luis Valley at the turn of the twentieth century. I remember being captivated by Jeannette’s story, due in part to the very small number of African Americans residing in the Valley, and especially those that have generational roots in the Valley.

Two years later, as I was thinking of ways to commemorate and celebrate Black History Month within the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, I remembered Jeannette’s story, and wondered if she would be willing to talk with me and give me an oral history of her and her family’s lives as African Americans living in one of the most secluded areas of Colorado, an area long inhabited by Hispanos from New Mexico, and later Anglo American migrants from the eastern United States. I got in contact with Jeannette through Eric Carpio at the Fort Garland Museum who was able to give me her and her husband’s contact information. I contacted Jeannette and she graciously agreed to an interview to discuss her and her family’s story. Jeannette was able to send me dozens of historic pictures of her family, as well as written accounts of her childhood, and her family’s migration story to the Valley. Jeannette’s oral history discussing her experiences, love for music, the lives of her family, and her legacy is documented through the following conversation we shared on January 25, 2024.

Brandon: So I guess we will go ahead and start with an introduction. If you could please state your name, age, career, and your education?

Jeannette: Okay, my name is Jeannette Stribling-Bell, and I was born on August 4, 1943 in Alamosa, Colorado, so I am now 80 years old. I had several careers, but the two main careers I had were teaching sixth grade for 49 years, 33 years in public schools, in the Westminster schools, and 16 years at Dawson School, which is a private school near Boulder, Colorado. I also became a professional opera singer. I got my BA from Adams State College in music, which is now Adams State University, and I graduated in 1965.

Richardson Hall at Adams State College, circa 1950s-1960s.
Photo courtesy of Nielsen Library, Adams State University.

I had a White voice teacher at Adams State who was from West Virginia. He didn’t want to take me as his student. Somebody talked to him, and he finally took me as his student, but he told me I could never become an opera singer because the only opera I could sing was Aida, which is a Black role. I just didn’t say anything, I just kept auditioning and participating in Opera Workshop. He sort of had to cast me because I was from Alamosa and the town was behind me, which was lovely, it was really wonderful. So, years later I went on to win the San Francisco Opera auditions. Several singers from Adams State attended a big regional competition in Oklahoma about 1964, and I placed sixth out of dozens of competitors. My voice teacher wasn’t too happy about that. He couldn’t understand why I did well, and the others didn’t do as well. He said it was because I was Black, and they had to start placing Blacks because of the Civil Rights Movement.

One of my adjudicators in the Oklahoma competition, Louis Cunningham, moved to the University of Colorado several years later when I was singing at Mario’s Restaurant, remembered me, took me as a private student, and then my voice and operatic career really took off. I also had this long career in education and took many classes and seminars, so I had a really full life as an educator and I just loved it. Absolutely loved it.

Brandon: Can you tell us the story of how your family came to the San Luis Valley? (Portions of the following account are from Jeannette’s written family history.)

Jeannette: Let us go back about four hundred years to slave ships leaving the coast of West Africa bound for the Americas. On these slave ships came some of my ancestors belonging to the Bantu, Sahelian, Ghanian, and Egyptian kingdoms. They endured inhumane treatment and illnesses contracted on board the ships not knowing the hellish life of enslavement they would face. Their constant companions were hard work, pain, degradation, humiliation, and loss of family. When my enslaved descendants arrived in the American Colonies, they knew nothing of the Native American tribes who had called this land home for thousands of years and were now being massacred, pushed off their lands by the U.S. Government, or dying of diseases contracted from European immigrants. Some of these American Indian tribes are part of my family.

About 1847, on an Atlanta, Georgia estate with six slaves, my white great-great-grandfather, Charles Chesterfield Stribling, a young medical doctor born about 1820, had a son with one of his family’s young, enslaved girls. My unnamed great-great-grandmother named her son Charles Chesterfield, after his white father. Charles C., the mulatto enslaved son, ran away when he was thirteen, around 1863, and was taken in by a band of Cherokee Indians still remaining in Georgia. Several years after the Civil War ended in 1865, my great-grandfather, Charles C., returned to Atlanta with his Cherokee Indian wife, Martha, and they had two sons, William Charles and John. My grandfather, William Charles, became a carpenter, farmer, and musician. He arrived in Denver, Colorado as a mandolin player and played in a stringed band in the Five Points area around 1894. He also did odd jobs during the day.

Jeannette’s paternal great-grandfather Charles Chesterfield, Jr.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

John Wamsley (Wosmley), my great-great-grandfather, an enslaved mulatto, was born in Maury County, Tennessee about 1819, but was living in Mt. Vernon, Missouri with other family members in 1844 when he escaped from his slave master to Springfield, Illinois. John Wamsley traveled via the Underground Railroad to Chicago, Illinois and then to Dixon, Illinois where he worked as a butcher. He married sixteen-year-old Lucy Ann Scott on December 25, 1854. Lucy Ann was a member of the Shawnee/Shoshone Indian tribes and a relative of the magnificent warrior and leader, Chief Tecumseh, a general in the British Army in the War of 1812. Lucy Ann and John had three children: Martha, Mollie, and Lucy.

In late 1863, John Wamsley joined Company F of the 29th United States Colored Infantry which fought with valor at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864 during the Civil War. His regiment was at Appomattox Court House, Virginia when General Lee surrendered to General Grant. Sgt. John Wamsley’s name can be found on the Memorial to the U.S. Colored Troops, in Washington, D.C. and on the National Parks Service roster of U.S. Colored Troops present at Appomattox Court House.

After the Civil War, John Wamsley went back to Mt. Vernon, Missouri to find his family, but was told they had gone to Kansas. Mollie Wamsley married Jerrold (Jerald) Phillips, a Missouri born mulatto ex-slave born in 1855, and they moved to Marion, Kansas where Jerrold was a lamplighter for the Union Pacific Railroad. Mollie and Jerrold were my great-grandparents. They had four children while living in Kansas. Jerrold was transferred to Denver, Colorado about 1892. Molly and Jerrold’s oldest child, Lillian, married William Charles Stribling in 1895. In 1896, while living in Denver, they had a daughter named Hazel and two years later in1898, when they were living in Pueblo, Colorado, they had a son, William Jerry, and then another son, Harry, in 1900. William Jerry Stribling was my father.

Jeannette’s paternal grandfather William Charles Stribling in 1930.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

Around 1901, William, Lillian, and their young family left Pueblo, Colorado via horse and buggy, on their way to a gold camp on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They traveled south to Walsenburg and then west over Old Red Wing Pass to the gold camp. They stayed there for about four years and then moved down into the Valley around 1905. William built and lived in the first stone house in Alamosa at 1125 La Due Avenue. He built other houses, raised cows, and ran the first dairy. Lillian had a hand laundry and washed and ironed clothes for the “high-toned” families as well as for the fancy girls at the “sporting house.” In 1913, William and Lillian sold the house on La Due and homesteaded 160 acres just 5 miles west of Alamosa. They call this area Jonesville now. Grandpa built the adobe house that was there. He was quite a builder and carpenter. I guess the walls were a foot thick, and they had an artesian well that he dug. As a matter of fact, he had three artesian wells.

(Left) Original Stribling Family Home on La Due Avenue in Alamosa. Built by William Stribling in 1912.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

(Right) The house still stands today after having survived a fire in the early 20th century.
Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Brandon: Is the adobe home still there?

Jeannette: It isn’t. The Texan man, who had some of those modular homes that he was selling, tore it down. He said he gave away all the adobe. But it was there a long time, all the time I was growing up. They probably tore it down about 20 years ago.

William and Lillian became successful potato farmers and established a trash-hauling business. They worked the farm/ranch and trash-hauling businesses with the help of their children and their spouses. In 1917, William and Lillian’s younger son, Harry, was working for the Union Pacific Railroad out of Denver and was murdered in North Platte, Nebraska. He is buried in the Alamosa Cemetery.

My maternal grandfather, George Barnett, was born enslaved in Richmond, Virginia around 1847. He came west to Colorado after the Civil War helping build the railroad. We find him working in Creede, Colorado in the 1880s for Robert Ford, the man who killed infamous bank and train robber Jesse James. George later moved to Durango, Colorado and became a handyman for white families.

Stribling Family Homestead adobe home built in 1916, five miles west of Alamosa.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

My maternal grandmother, Jennie Humes, was born enslaved in Warrensburg, Missouri in 1864 or 1865. Both of her parents, James and Ann Humes, also born enslaved, and their two-year-old son died suddenly just before 1872, making Jennie a seven-year-old orphan. Jennie was taken by a white family, the Ridenours. The story goes that two Ridenour brothers and their young families were heading to Colorado Territory because during the Civil War they had stolen horses from the Union, and sold them to the Confederacy. The brothers then stole horses from the Confederacy and sold them back to the Union. Passions were still riding high on both sides during Reconstruction (1866-1877) and the Ridenours felt they needed to make the arduous journey to Colorado Territory to avoid capture by federal troops. The Ridenours and Jennie Humes probably walked most of the way, alongside their covered wagon pulled by oxen, on the Old Santa Fe Trail to Trinidad, Colorado, then to Colorado Springs, and finally to Saguache, Colorado, where Jennie and the Ridenours resided until 1887 when they all moved to Durango, Colorado. Jennie Humes and George Barnett met in Durango, Colorado and were married there in 1889. George and Jennie Barnett had ten children born and raised in Durango. My mother, Julia, their fifth child, was born in 1899.

Jeannette’s maternal grandmother Jennie Humes-Barnett.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

Jeannette: Let me tell you the story of how my father met my mother.

When my dad was about 17, he didn’t want to work on the ranch anymore, so he became a cowboy in South Fork. He went to work as a cowboy, you know, riding fence, and doing whatever else you do as a cowboy. And then one day when he was out riding fence in the middle of the day, he stopped to eat his lunch, and sat on a big rock and fell asleep. When he woke up, he heard all of this rattling and saw the rock was covered with rattlesnakes. Some of them, according to him, were on his legs and arms and he had to stay there all day until they slithered off the rock. He got up, mounted his horse, rode back to the ranch house, and quit. He then started working for the D&RG out of Alamosa to Durango.

Jeannette’s newlywed parents William Jerry Stribling and Julia Barnett-Stribling in 1920.
Children are niece and nephew Harrietta and Charles Wortham.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

My father was a Pullman porter on the D&RG that went from Alamosa to Antonito, over Cumbres Pass, and into Durango. On one of his overnights in Durango, he visited the pool hall. Julia Barnett’s older brothers were hanging around in the pool hall, and they told William that they had a sister named Julia and would he like to meet her? And so William Jerry and Julia met, but it was just around the time of the First World War. He was drafted into the Army in 1918, and after the end of World War I he came back to Denver where Julia was working as a matron at a dry goods store and living with a couple from Durango. Julia and William Jerry were married April 4, 1920 in Denver, Colorado. After two years of marriage they returned to Alamosa where my oldest brother was born on August 7, 1922. The young couple was given 80 acres adjacent to his parents’ homestead. William Jerry and Julia had ten children: Robert, Mary Jane, Marceline, Ellwyn, Maxine, Paul, Shirley, Joseph (who died in infancy), Wayne, and me, Jeannette. All of William and Julia’s children were born and raised in Alamosa. The oldest seven siblings attended Mount Pleasant, a one-room school for farm kids, located between Alamosa and Monte Vista. Seven of the nine surviving Stribling children graduated from Alamosa High School and two of the nine, Paul and I, graduated from Adams State College.

Maxine left Alamosa for Columbus, Ohio when she was 17 to live with our oldest married sister, Mary Jane, whose husband was stationed in Germany at the time. Maxine finished her education in Columbus.

Ellwyn left Alamosa for San Francisco, when he was 16, to live with our father. He became a world class miler while attending Commerce High School. Ellwyn was a Pacific Coast Champion miler, still the only African American to have won the famous Bay to Breakers run that he won in 1950. Blacks from other countries now frequently win that race. Ellwyn was attending San Jose State and preparing for the 1952 Olympic Trials in New York when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and then spent three years in a sanitarium. He recovered, married, had three children, worked in the medical field, and died of a stroke in 1975. Ellwyn was inducted into the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame in 1984.

Jeannette’s mother Julia, pregnant with her brother Ellwyn,
and her two older sisters Mary Jane and Marceline.
Alamosa, 1930.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

Jeannette: Let me tell you just a little bit about my sibling, Robert, who was the oldest. He was quite an athlete and his nickname was “Buckshot.” (My brothers Ellwyn, Paul, and Wayne were also called “Buckshot.”) My father wanted him to quit high school to work on the ranch, and my mother was so keen on education that she wanted all of her children to be educated and to graduate from high school. Well, she defied my dad and said that Robert was going to stay in school, so Robert stayed at the barbershop right there on State Avenue, and he lived in a back room. He shined shoes there, attended school, and graduated in 1940. Robert went to Denver and played with a band. Maybe you know the name of this band. I can’t find anything about the Chacon brothers. They had a band in the Valley, and my brother played trumpet. So, he joined this band when he was in high school and went to Denver and played gigs at beer joints in Denver with the Chacon Band. He also had a side job as a courier for the Mafia. When he found out who he was working for he quit and began working as a dining car waiter on the California Zephyr.

Brandon: Did you and your family face any kind of racism growing up in Alamosa?

Jeannette: My brother Wayne participated in track, football, and basketball in high school. He went to school with a guy named Boogie Romero, who was Hispanic, and both of them were excellent athletes. I heard later on that the school board, along with the principal, were very discriminatory and racist. Evidently, they had a meeting, and they wrote a letter to the basketball coach and said that if he started Boogie and Wayne, and they used derogatory terms to describe them, his job was going to be in jeopardy if he put them on the first team. And so the coach had to comply. I guess that year, the basketball team didn’t do so well. But anyway, that’s just some discrimination that went on.

Wayne graduated in 1958 and then moved to San Francisco to stay with our dad. Over several years, Wayne worked, attended San Francisco City College, played football, married, and had one son. He also attended the University of San Francisco part time until he received his B.A., M.A., and M.B.A. He and his wife raised her five younger siblings who had been given up by her mother. Wayne became one of the owners of California Brake and Clutch, a very successful business in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Every month, for four years, before he was married, he sent money home to help pay for my college education. Wayne, the last of my siblings, passed away February 7, 2023.

There was not a lot of overt racism that I know of. I just know that in school, I was on my own. The teachers didn’t help me. If I didn’t get it, then too bad. I did have several great teachers though, one was Mrs. Margaret Polston, who was my first grade teacher. I think I learned to read the first week I was in her class. I probably already knew how to read from Sunday school. One of the things about going to The Assembly of God church and Sunday school is that I got all the preschool skills. So, I was ready for first grade. Mrs. Polston followed my singing career. I sang at her funeral several years ago. Mrs. Chisholm, my eighth grade social studies teacher, was so exuberant and passionate in her teaching that I modeled that in my teaching.

Mr. Quarels, a Black man, and his family lived in Alamosa. He integrated the Rialto Theater when the first “talkies” came out. He just said he wasn’t going to sit in the balcony anymore. He went to the Rialto and sat on the main floor. And you know what happened to him?

Brandon: What’s that?

Jeannette: Nothing. Nothing. Usually, Blacks had to sit in the balcony if they went to the movie theaters. After that, no one ever said anything.

Jeannette’s father, a family friend, and aunt retrieving water
from the artesian well on the Stribling Family Homestead. Alamosa, 1915.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

Education has played a major role in Jeannette’s life and she continued to talk about her experiences in school and how different educators changed her life.

Jeannette: Mrs. Buchanan was a music teacher at Boyd School, recognized my talent, and made me feel wonderful. When I was in high school, a very important person in my life, Russell Hillock, came to Alamosa right out of college from CU to teach choir. He heard my voice and was just taken by it. Mr. Hillock gave me my first aria to sing when I was a sophomore, and I was hooked! That’s what I wanted to do, sing opera! It was great that I was able to do that. I had to work really hard. I hadn’t had any piano lessons because my mother was so destitute. She didn’t even have 50 cents for me to take piano lessons. Mr. Hillock was able to get me free voice lessons at Adams State with Mrs. Mildred Trelkeld, Dr. Budge Trelkeld’s wife. Russell Hillock became my lifelong friend. We even ended up singing together at Mario’s Restaurant for several years when he came to Denver to teach. He died in 2020.

While singing with the Mario Singers, we sang gigs across the United States. I also sang in operas, including a world premiere. I spent ten weeks in the San Francisco Opera Merola program, and three summers at the Summer Vocal Institute in Graz, Austria.

Dr. Plachy, former president of Adams State and his family, came to hear me sing at Mario’s Restaurant for several years.

Brandon: How did growing up in the Valley shape you? What does that mean to you now?

Jeannette: You know, the Valley is my soul, and I kind of choke up about it because it is who I am. When I reflect on my life and all the things I’ve done and I’ve been so honored and humbled to have had this exciting, incredible life, and that it all goes back to Alamosa. That’s in my brain. That’s who I am. So I don’t regret growing up in the Valley, no matter how, at the time, destitute I was or how difficult it was. And the cold and wind were just unbelievable! But we survived, and my mother worked so hard to raise us. You know, I grew up with a five-watt bulb to study by because Mama didn’t want to run up the electric bill. But, because I know what deprivation means, I can survive anything. I’m so proud of my family, too, coming from enslavement and building a life that I then could build on and become successful, and help others too.

Brandon: Why did you decide to leave the Valley?

Jeannette: No opportunities for a Black person, especially a Black girl. What could I have done there? I can’t think of anything.

Brandon: Were your children born here in the Valley?

Jeannette: So, we only have one daughter, Tia, and she was born at the hospital in Denver. She grew up in a suburban school in Westminster. We had a horse ranch and trained and showed English and Western performances horses. That’s a whole other story of my life with my husband, John, doing horses on the national level and winning as Black exhibitors, the first to do that, along with our daughter, who’s a national champion equestrienne. Tia has a daughter too, and they live with us. Our granddaughter, 12-years-old, also rides horses, is a gifted pianist, and an outstanding runner in sprints. I guess she is our “Lady Buckshot.”

John’s equestrian family history goes back about 200 years. His enslaved paternal male ancestors trained horses in Missouri on the Tapp Plantation. John would go back and see two of his great-uncles who were well-known horse trainers. He was just a little tike, and he loved horses so much. So, for 58 years we’ve been doing horses. John is an accomplished trainer and exhibitor. He is the founder, president, and CEO of the Buffalo Soldiers of the American West. Inc., 501 (3)C, a cavalry reenactment non-profit that for 38 years has been telling the story of these Black soldiers. John received the Colorado 2023 Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award for telling the story of the Buffalo Soldiers to thousands of people.

John came to Colorado from Olathe, Kansas when he was eight. He grew up in Westminster, Colorado, attended Adams State, and got his BA in 1963. He returned to Westminster where he taught science and became a school administrator. He received his M.Ed. from Colorado State University.

Brandon: Have your daughter and granddaughter visited the Valley?

Jeannette: Oh, yes! When my daughter was young, I went down to see my mother as often as I could. I worked weekends because of the singing, but whenever I could, like during the summer when I wasn’t teaching, I would go down during the week. So, she and my mother were just close as could be. Mama was 78 years old when my daughter was born, and she died at 101. She left Alamosa in 1985, but my daughter and my mother were just love bugs. Our granddaughter has been to Alamosa a number of times. We were just there last year. So, yes, they have the Valley in their DNA. I talk about the Valley all the time.

Jeannette’s mother Julia Barnett-Stribling in 1975.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

Brandon: What does Black History Month mean to you?

Jeannette: You know, Black History Month is every month to me. When I taught school, they started having Black History Month. We would have lots of information about Black History, but I was teaching Black History every day. I was teaching American History, which includes African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and European Americans. So, yes, we did things about Martin Luther King, Jr. My students had to learn part of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and we talked about the Civil Rights Movement, also taught about the Triangle Slave Trade and enslavement. I didn’t just take February to talk about Black History, I was teaching it every day. So, it’s wonderful to have Black History Month as a celebration of African Americans’ struggles and accomplishments.

Brandon: The final thing, is there anything else that you would like to share or information you think is critical for us to know about your life in the Valley?

Jeannette: Not really, except one thing. We all know how cold Alamosa is. I had to walk a mile back and forth down to the end of Main Street, where I lived with my mother, to high school and then later to the college. One time when I was walking home from high school it was probably 5-10 below zero, and a car stopped with this young Black man from the college driving. He asked me if I wanted a ride. I didn’t know him, I was shy, but I took the ride anyway. He drove me all the way down to the end of Main Street, and I thanked him. Well, that young man was John Bell, who later on I met, and six years after that first meeting, we got married! He picked me up on the street and now we have been married 58 years.

Jeannette Stribling-Bell and her husband, John Bell.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Stribling-Bell.

Brandon: Well, I appreciate this interview so much. I really learned a lot from you!

Jeannette: We’re honored to be able to tell our story. And thank you for all you do, it’s really important. Thanks so much!

Brandon Gonzales is the Historian/Researcher for the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area and a lifelong resident of the San Luis Valley. Much of his work includes documenting and uncovering the histories of the people and places within Alamosa, Conejos, and Costilla counties.