updated 1/7/2009 8:02:35 PM ET 2009-01-08T01:02:35

Sharecropper's grandson Terrance Carroll was chosen Wednesday as speaker of Colorado's House of Representatives, making the state the first in the nation where blacks lead both chambers of its Legislature.

The milestone is most remarkable in a state where blacks are just 4 percent of the population — and where decades ago the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan held sway over the Capitol.

Carroll and Senate President Peter Groff, elected to his leadership position a year ago, also are the only blacks among Colorado's 100 legislators.

"This really does speak volumes about how far this country has moved and how this can really be a place of opportunity," Carroll said before Wednesday's official vote on the 2009 General Assembly's opening day.

Democrats the majority
His fellow Democrats had picked the 39-year-old Denver lawyer and ordained Baptist minister to lead them back in November, paving the way for Wednesday's unanimous balloting by the whole House, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 38 to 27.

Carroll told his colleagues that in these difficult times, "Americans have sent a clear message to their political leaders: We don't care where you come from, what color your skin is, or what party you belong to. We care only how you can move us forward."

Carroll credits his late mother for his success. She was 51 when he was born and raised him on her own while earning a living as a domestic worker in Washington, D.C.

Groff, also a Denver Democrat and the son of former state legislator Regis Groff, credits the West's openness to people with good ideas, regardless of their background. He pointed to the election of a woman, Janet Napolitano, as governor of Arizona, and President-elect Barack Obama's election victory in Colorado. Obama was only the third Democrat since 1948 to win Colorado's presidential vote.

Groff, 45, is a former assistant to Denver's only black mayor, Wellington Webb. He was elected Senate president in 2007 after the chamber's first female leader, Joan Fitz-Gerald, stepped down to pursue a failed bid for Congress.

"It's more a testament to the state than the speaker and me," said Groff, who is also a lawyer.

A different racial legacy
Colorado doesn't have the same racial legacy as some states in the South or East.

But the Ku Klux Klan did dominate state politics in the mid-1920s, and Klan members once sat in the Capitol chamber where Carroll will wield the gavel. One floor below, Klan member Clarence Morley occupied the governor's office.

State historian Bill Convery said most of the Klan's ire in the legislature was directed against Catholics and immigrants — though Jews and blacks also were targeted by vigilantes and a cross-burning on the lawn of the founder of Colorado's NAACP chapter.

Despite its legislative power, the Klan was outmaneuvered by opponents when it sought to implement its agenda, including a bill to outlaw the use of sacramental wine in the Catholic Mass.

Term limits have churned up the membership of Colorado's legislature.

The House speaker's position opened up this year because Andrew Romanoff had served the maximum eight years in the chamber. Carroll beat out two other candidates, both women.

Longtime friends, neighbors
Groff and Carroll, longtime friends who live 10 blocks from each other, said they initially didn't realize they would be making national history, but the National Conference of State Legislatures has confirmed that they are.

The two men have teamed on legislation supporting charter schools, concerned that urban schools are failing minority students. That's sometimes put them at odds with other Democrats.

Carroll said his mother, the granddaughter of a slave, only reached the third grade but urged him to take advantage of free public education. He graduated from Morehouse College and the Iliff School of Theology, then attended the University of Denver School of Law while serving in the legislature.

"I think it's a testament of what you can do and what a child can do when they're loved, cared for and encouraged," he said of his mother.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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