Dallas Burleson stepped up to the lectern and welcomed people joining Friendship Baptist Church of Christ Jesus for a Sunday service.
She was accompanied onstage by her daughter, Stacie Burleson, to start the worship hour with a song. Just a little later, Pastor Paul Burleson, Dallas’ husband and Stacie’s father, took center stage. The three finished the Feb. 14 service by singing together, embodying the family ties the Denver church is based on.
The service also featured a Black History Month presentation. At one point, presenter Janay Lewis said, “My mind began to wander with a thought: Where would the world be without the Friendship Baptist Church of Jesus Christ? The church was started 46 years ago by a young pastor named Pastor Paul Burleson.”
If not for Paul Burleson, Lewis said, there would be no Friendship Baptist, which has gone on to impact the community.
Just as an example, Dallas and Paul Burleson described in a separate conversation, Friendship Baptist helped find housing in Denver for people displaced from New Orleans and Houston after hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, respectively. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock took Sunday School classes at Friendship Baptist. Paul Burleson prayed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, where he made the acquaintance of former President Barack Obama and now-President Joe Biden. Dallas Burleson sang an opening song for an event in Denver featuring civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy.
This eventful journey doesn’t start with Paul Burleson 46 years ago, though. It goes back further than that, the Burlesons explained. To the banks of the South Platte River in Littleton, where George and Dorothy Johnson, Dallas Burleson’s parents, held a Bible study. It’s George and Dorothy Johnson, the Burlesons say, who deserve credit for the church and so much else.
Making Littleton home
The Johnson family moved to Littleton in 1949, when George accepted a job offer to groom horses for a rancher in town. Before then, the family had lived in other places in Colorado, Bailey and Broomfield, and in Omaha, Nebraska.
“We liked it in Littleton. We had such a good time. Everything was right there on the ranch. People coming to ride horses, it was exciting,” said GeorgeAnne Redd, another daughter to George and Dorothy.
Altogether, there were six Johnson children: GeorgeAnne, Dallas, Johnny Lee, Robert, George Jr. and Charles. When the Johnsons moved to Littleton, they were the only African American family in town, Redd said.
At the time, most African American people lived in Denver. When the Johnsons occasionally visited the city, Redd said, “It was really strange to see all these Black people in one place because all we had ever seen was Caucasian people when we went to school.” Soon enough, though, they met a couple Black families in Englewood — including Jessie and Lola Holmes and their family.
Talking about the two families’ relationship, Geraldine Holmes, the daughter-in-law of Jessie and Lola, recollected “Nobody was a stranger, they were just like family.”
In 1956, after being a horse groomer for other people, Johnson opened his own stable, Happy Valley Stables, in Littleton, Redd said. There, he housed and trained other peoples’ horses and also taught riding lessons.
Happy Valley also gave Johnson the opportunity to train as a horse exhibitor, a side gig he would become successful at. Starting in the 1950s, he began showing at the National Western Stock Show. At that time, Redd doesn’t recall seeing other Black exhibitors at the stock show, leading her to think he was the first, though stock show officials were not able to confirm if that was the case following a recent inquiry.
Redd recalls seeing other Black people at the show, but said they were all groomers up until the 1970s.
“My dad was the first that I saw that ever really showed,” she said.
Happy Valley wasn’t just a business enterprise, though. It was a community hub. “Everybody was at the stables every chance we got, mostly every weekend,” said Geraldine Holmes. The Holmes family and others would join the Johnsons for picnics and horseback riding. Also, in the warmer months, Dorothy Johnson led family and friends in a Bible study along the banks of the South Platte River.
The strong bond between the Johnsons and Holmeses, and their commitment to gathering for a Bible study, would have a lasting effect. They continued meeting throughout the years either along the South Platte, or, in the colder months, at the Holmes residence in Englewood.
‘A powerful journey’
Paul Burleson moved to Denver in December 1969 after serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He had an uncle living in Denver who would attend the Johnson/Holmes Bible study. So, on his first day in town, Paul Burleson accompanied his uncle to the Bible study. There, he met Dallas and they hit it off instantly.
“I didn’t even know anything about her except that I was attracted to her and the Lord put in my spirit, ‘That’s your wife,’” Paul Burleson recalled.
As the two got to know each other, Paul Burleson would become leader of the Bible study. At the time, he was studying ministry in Denver. Then, in 1974 in the Holmeses’ basement, the group officially formed the church and named Burleson pastor. Redd had the honor of naming the church. “Because of the friendship that we had with the Holmeses … I named it Friendship Baptist Church and it was accepted,” Redd said.
For four years, the church met at the Holmeses’ home until eventually moving into a school building in Englewood. Then, in 1984, they moved to an old house in Denver on Holly Street. In 1990, Friendship Baptist realized it needed to upgrade its space, when Bear Valley Church in Lakewood approached them. Bear Valley offered up its old church building if Friendship Baptist could literally move the building to Holly St, the Burlesons described.
So, piece-by-piece, Friendship Baptist transported the building to Holly St. to replace the house that was there. Later, in 2000, Friendship Baptist moved one last time to the location it is currently at along Fairfax Street in Denver.
Throughout that time, the Burlesons became more active in the community. Paul was president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance and got involved with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Meanwhile, Dallas became more well-known for her singing and songwriting. She performed at concerts headlined by major gospel artists and wrote original songs performed by musicians. She recently wrote and published her first children’s book, “The Adventures of Fanny Faithful.”
“It’s been such a powerful journey,” said Dallas Burleson. “In the good, in the bad. There’s been the ugly … But there’s been so much joy.”
As for the other Johnson children, Redd currently oversees administrative operations at Friendship Baptist after a career in real estate. Robert Johnson recently retired from pastoring his own church. George Jr. and Charles Johnson were musicians and had a band, Mother Pearl, that performed in Littleton and Denver. Charles Johnson was also a Vietnam veteran and received the Purple Heart, Redd said.
Today, Redd, Dallas Burleson and Robert Johnson are the only living members of the Johnson family’s original eight. Yet, reminders of the family’s collective memory are everywhere, such as a horse galloping on TV or a church service at Friendship Baptist.
“The bottom line was that we were standing on the shoulders of Dallas’ mother and father, George Johnson and Miss Dorothy Johnson,” Paul Burleson said. “So, we want to make sure that we don’t forget them as being fearless pioneers and tireless trailblazers.”
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