Celebrating Community Heroes at The Well
Mural by SCOTCH!
Sponsored by The Philanthropy Collective
Located at The Well (315 E. Pikes Peak Ave.), this mural highlights the legacies of Sam Melena and “Mama” Susie Perkins, two community leaders in Downtown Colorado Springs’ historic Conejos Neighborhood.
The following stories about Sam and Mama Susie were generously provided by the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. To learn more, please visit the Una Familia Grande exhibit at the museum (315 S. Tejon St.).
Everyone in Conejos knew Sam Melena – and he knew them. In addition to carrying staples like meat, sugar, coffee, flour, and rice, Melena’s Rio Grande Market was the place to learn the latest news, get a small loan until payday, and visit with your neighbors. Kids excitedly bought penny candy, ice cream for “ten cents a dip,” and soda. Customers purchased groceries on credit, telling Sam to “put it on the bill.” The Melena Family and the Rio Grande Market anchored the Conejos Neighborhood for decades.
Severiano “Sam” Melena was born in Santiago, Michoacan, Mexico, on February 21, 1895. At fourteen he was forced to serve in the Mexican Army, and fled the country during the Mexican Revolution. He arrived in Colorado in 1910, working on ranches in Trinidad and Walsenburg, as a miner in Georgetown, at the Pikeview Coal Mine, in the Pueblo steel mills, and for the Denver and Rio Grande Railway and the Golden Cycle Mill in Colorado Springs. Sam married Rosario “Rosa” Avila on January 8, 1925 and the couple had three children, Teresa, Ismael (Ish) and Rudolph (Rudy).
After the Memorial Day Flood of 1935, Sam worked replacing railroad tracks washed away by Monument Creek. As granddaughter Becky described, “While working near Conejos Street he noticed some empty houses. One was next to an alley. Someone had told him that in order to have a successful business, it should be situated on a corner of a street. He bought the property at 320 S. Conejos and on Oct. 1, 1937 opened the Rio Grande Grocery and Market.” After Sam’s death in 1978, Rosa ran the store with son Rudy by her side. After Rosa passed away in 1982, Rudy Melena operated the store until it closed in 1998.
“Mama” Susie Perkins
From farm girl to teenage mother to prominent business woman, "Mama Susie" Perkins was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and visionary who provided jobs and homes to thousands of people and became known as one of the wealthiest Black woman in Colorado Springs.
Mama Susie was born September 27, 1902 to Tom and Lila Brown Harrison in Winona, Mississippi and gave birth to her only son, Thomas Alpha Wright, when she was 14 years old. She passed away December 3, 2000 at 98 years of age and was preceded in death by her husband William Harvey Perkins and her brother, Alfie "Round Boy" Harrison.
As a girl, Mama Susie saw her grandparents evicted from their farm by the owner and declared, "I promised God that if I ever got grown and had children, I'd own my own home and nobody but God would take it away from me." Her mother, Lila, suffered from asthma and heart trouble for most of her life and was told by a doctor she wouldn't have long to live. They moved to Colorado Springs in 1937 where Lila's health improved, and she actively lived for 30 more years.
While in Colorado Springs, Mama Susie made her own distinctive mark on the civic and business world for more than half a century. She purchased her first truck and grew the business operating her own trash hauling business for 12 years when few Black people - let alone women - owned businesses. By the time she sold her trash hauling business, she had 7 trucks and 7 crews.
Mama Susie married William "Daddy Bill" Perkins on June 7, 1947 and for a short time they owned "Bill and Susie's Cafe" on Colorado Avenue.
Mama Susie used her businesses’ earnings to buy 100 rental properties over the years in downtown Colorado Springs and renovated them with the help of her husband and family. She was also unique for renting to those no one else would, including military, underprivileged families, and people of color.
Mama Susie was a great supporter of St. John Baptist Church and gave liberally to the poor and needy. She was a charter member of the NHACS and was named "Woman of the Year" by the Western States Baptist Convention in 1973. She also received special recognition for her help and service with the Washington School's lunch program and was recognized by Thomas B. Doherty, Superintendent of Schools in District 11, for her "thoughtfulness in helping our schools and our pupils."
Mama Susie touched many lives with her dedicated work in our state and local communities.