Schools of Exclusion: How Desegregating Denver’s Public Schools Ultimately Segregated the City of Denver from 1960 through the 1990s
Borders and Borderlands
December 8, 2016
In September, 1972 a young black student living in Denver boarded a bus bound for a school outside the borders of the Park Hill neighborhood where he was born and grew up. He was going to a new school, one that he had never been to before, as part of an initiative to desegregate Denver schools. He was scared. Some of his friends were going to new schools too, but others got to stay at the old school in Park Hill. His mom and dad said that this was a good thing because the Court wanted to help kids like him get a better education. He was hopeful that he would be treated like an equal at his new school. He looked around the bus at all the other black and Mexican kids—he knew that they hoped for the same thing. More than twenty years later, that little boy put his little boy on a bus. But he wasn’t hopeful anymore. Two decades went by and nothing changed. He still was not an equal, and he knew his son wouldn’t be either.
The above story is not true, but it is not exactly fiction either. This was the reality whenthe bussing program began in 1974as part of an effort to end the de factoschool segregation which had plagued the city since the late 1950s. On September 16, 1995, the bussing effort to end segregation in the Denver Public School district officially ended, leaving Denver’s schools vastly more segregated than they had been to start. Two years before the program was enacted,Denver’s schools were fifty-eight percent whiteand forty percent black and Hispanic. In 1994 the schools were twenty-nine percent white and forty-six percent black and Hispanic. Over a period of only twenty-two years, the racial makeup of Denver had flipped and minority groups became firmly divided from the relatively wealthy white suburbs and their mostly whiteschools.The end of the bussing program was only the final act in a long story of racial segregation and othering in Denver’s neighborhoods.
School segregation became a hot button issue across the nation with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954, which had a lasting impact on Denver. The case ended de jure segregation in schools, but also shed light on de facto segregation in many Northern and Western states like Colorado that had never had legally enforced school divisions based upon race. This segregation had become more and more common as neighborhoods in large cities divided into racial enclaves and ghettos as white residents moved into the newly created suburbs.Schools serving these inner-cityareas inevitably became racially homogenous and isolated. While Denver never developed true ghettos, certain neighborhoods, such as Park Hill and Five Points,became more and more racially segregated throughout the 1950s and 60s. These neighborhoods formed the core of a battle thatwould ultimately divide Denver from its surrounding suburbs.
Most scholars, including historians, educational scholars, and sociologists, agree about the basic nature of desegregation, and have argued that schools thatwere once legally desegregated have, over time, become more de facto segregated than they ever were de jure. These scholars see the basic reasons for this process as being the efforts made by white upper- and middle-class families to isolate their children from black and Hispanic students by moving to the suburbs or by sending their children to private schools. Other scholars have addressed the failure of desegregation as the result of a neo-conservative push to protect so-called family values. These efforts to protect family values led to isolated minority populations and helped to create a tension between races, as well as city and suburban residents.
Many Scholars have studied the specific implications of segregation in the west and within the city of Denver. These scholars have noted the importance of regional racial differences between the southwest and the rest of the country. In the southwest, Mexican immigration complicated an already challenging racial divide in schools. These scholars argue that many conservative reformers used factors such as language to create a wedge between black and Hispanic students to prevent minority populations from uniting against segregation.
My work fits within this larger scholarship, particularly in that it addresses white, conservative reforms in the west. My work also adds to this scholarship by addressing segregation in schools specifically, and by discussing the ways in which these reformers erected borders between white and minority communities, first informally and then later through specific legal actions designed to isolate these groups from one another.
I argue that school boards and conservative reformers used the debate over integration to create a wedge between Park Hill and Five Points residents and residents of the suburbs with the goal of isolating and confining Denver’s minority population. While there was no conspiratorial organization to create a racial border between these neighborhoods and the rest of the city, decades of collective action nonetheless had this result. The process occurred over four decades and followed three major phases. In the first of these phases, during the 1950s and 60s, Denver’s school boards and conservative groups adopted a policy of denial and ignorance. They claimed there were no major problems regarding race or segregation in Denver Schools. They misinterpreted evidence to show that the clear majority of Denver residents, both white and minority, were happy with the schools and no major reforms regarding integration were needed. Following the Keyes Supreme Court case which mandated the integration of Denver’s schools, these school boards and conservative groups changed their tactics. With the problems of de facto segregation made evident, they switched from a strategy of denial to one of resistance. While they for the first time accepted the evils of school segregation, they vehemently argued against actual measures to enforce it, such as busing. Finally, after realizing the futility of fighting busing measures, they turned to their final strategy. Conservative reformersacknowledged the impossibility of ever maintaining white majority schools in the city, and instead proceeded with efforts to isolate the urban region of Denver from its suburbs. The passage of the Poundstone amendment in 1974 made it possible to cut off the minority population of Denver and prevent it from mixing and integrating with the suburbs. Thus, with legal integration measures implemented, these conservative reformers were ultimately forced to approach the issue with action rather than inaction or simple opposition, and thus proceeded to produce a formal and legalized border between white Denver and minority Denver via intercity gerrymandering. With the success of these actions Denverbecame one of the most segregated school districts in the country, with little chance of ever attaining any degree of racial integration.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Denver Public Schools (DPS) operated under the assumption that the district did not face any major racial or class issues. Neighborhood proximity was the defining characteristic of school zoning, and complaints from various minority groups such as blacks and Hispanics were regarded as small and insignificant. In a policy statement from May of 1964, the district investigated educational opportunity. They found that seventy-nine percent of parents and students found the schools either “excellent” or “good.” Those that did have complaints only voiced minor issues such as “teaching methods” and “discipline issues,” and only four percent of minority parents thought minority children did not have an equal opportunity for education. Additional data showed that certain schools were becoming racially isolated and segregated, but the school board chose not to acknowledge this as a cause of concern considering the glowing reviews of community members.
Not everything was as calm and equitable as the district presented, though. Many community leaders expressed concern about the growing segregation in the Park Hill and Five Points neighborhoods. One aspect of this growing segregation was a perceived rise in crime in the Dahlia neighborhood of Park Hill. A community report in 1966 noted that “large numbers of young people (almost all were negroes) were congregating at the Dhalia shopping center.” Residents in the area voiced their growing concern that these youngsters would soon “rumble or riot.” When the youths were asked why they were congregating they explained they “had nowhere to go” and had no productive outlets for their time or energy. They also reported that police “beat on the[ir] cars with their sticks and talked in a demeaning way.” Black leaders in the area, including Rachel Noel, suggested that city recreational leagues and activities should be started in the neighborhood to help prevent further altercations and provide resources for the area. When such actions were taken, it seemed to quiet the immediate crisis. The community’s reaction to the behavior of these youths expresses the degree to which some Denver residents were alarmed by a growing minority population in the city. With very little evidence, they jumped to the conclusion that these black youths must be up to no good. In the years that followed,these residents would attempt to isolate and contain this perceived troubled minority population in Park Hill and Five Points
Parents in the Park Hill and Five Points neighborhoods soon grew concerned about the rapid rise in local school segregation. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s, an increase in black and Hispanic students, and a corresponding drop in the white population,occurred in the neighborhood. Local parents were especially outraged at the proposed construction of a new middle school at the corner of Colorado Boulevard and 32nd Avenue in Park Hill. Parents complained thatthe school would be “predominately minority due to gerrymandering.”After these vocal complaints from parents, the school board abandoned plans to build the new school. Parents also pointed to recently released achievement test scores which showed the growing achievement gap between white and black and Hispanic students in the area.Parents were increasingly worried that the Park Hill population was being boxed in through the drawing of school boundaries that were clearly aimed at isolating the minority population of the area to ensure the racial segregation of schools. These boundaries and divisions served to keep a segregated minority population trapped within the neighborhood attending schools of inferior quality.
In a 1964 policy statement,the Denver School Board expressed that it was aware of the growing segregation problem and that it desired to increase racial diversityto ensure the prevention of segregated schools. This statement precipitated a debate between board members and citizens that would echo through the decades. The debate concerned whether the solution to segregation lie in busing students to enforce racial integration, or to commit more resources to de facto segregated schools and maintain traditional neighborhood schools. In 1964, the boardconcluded that most areas of the city supported the continuation of neighborhood schools, and that open enrollment and busing was only favored in the West and Manual High School area. The school board, in effect, realized that racial segregation was occurring, but claimed that residents were unwilling to modify zoning methods and therefore took no actions to resolve the problem. This action served the needs of the greater Denver area, but ignored the increasing problems faced by the Park Hill neighborhood.
The board did make some token recommendations, though. While it was too costly and difficult to address the segregation issue in schools in Park Hill and Five Points the board did approve action to expand access to after school programs and libraries in minority neighborhoods. The board argued that if increased educationalopportunities could be provided in a segregated environment it was overall beneficial to students, and would please the majority of voters and stakeholders. This was the first time that the board had acknowledged that segregation was a real and growing problem but they chose to skirt the issue and not address it head on. Instead they fixed smaller secondary issues and ignored the looming problem of de facto school segregation which was continuing to racially isolate the Park Hill and Five Points neighborhoods.
Further board politicking and avoidance came in 1967 when Commissioner of Education Byron Hansford and superintendent Dr. Robert Gilberts both weighed in onsegregation and school reform. Hansfordproposed a three-year plan to study the problem of segregation and advocated a slow approach. Gilberts also advocated a slow and measured approach. He declared that there was “more to issues of education than just the integration problem,” and that “more study was needed before any definitive action such as busing could be taken.”Again, the focus of the school board was on avoiding direct intervention in segregation issues. They were happy to maintain the status quo and not directly confront the neighborhood school question.
As years of avoidance dragged on, the racial divide in Park Hill and Five Points deepened. In 1963, a Mayor’s commission community relations showed the degree to which the city of Denver was aware of the racial separation in Park Hill and Five Points. The commission reported that the neighborhood was increasingly becoming black, and many of its residents, both white and black, were eagerto move toother areas of the city. Many circumstances such as housing discrimination and lack of economic opportunity prevented black residents from leaving the area, and a climate of racial tension and unease came over the neighborhoods.Again, school officials knew the damaging effects segregation was having on Park Hill and Five Points and chose to stall meaningful reform. More significant, the commission noted the increasing racial divide between these neighborhoods and the rest of the city. Blacks in the area were increasingly isolated and abandoned by the city in regards to housing and education.
With this information, the school board made only token efforts to improve schools or implement programs to desegregate schools in the area. This area also saw the emergence of the debate over neighborhood schools versus busing to attain meaningful integration. This issue would become critical in just a few years with the Keyes decision. Additionally, policymakers saw the development of a racially segregated neighborhood and the development of class tensions. These policies of the 1960s were critical in the creation of informal racial borders around these neighborhoods and the isolation and alienation of the peoples trapped within. School quality was relatively poor and DPS seemed very uninterested in improving it or in integrating the area with the rest of the Denver Metro region. Even so, such informal measures to continue to depress minority communities seemed sufficient, and conservative reformers had faced little organized, meaningful opposition up to that point.
However, an important new voice emerged in the conversation about school reform in 1965. Rachel Noel, an African American reformer who moved to Denver in 1949,won election to the Denver School Board and used this position as a platform to promote school desegregation and community development in the Park Hill neighborhood. Noel also worked as a professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. She proposed the Noel Resolution in 1968 to acknowledge the damage caused by school segregation and to implement reforms to end it. These reforms would be the first major effort to try and integrate these increasingly racially-isolated neighborhoods, as well as the first substantial opposition to denial of these issues by many school board members and officials and conservative reformers.
TheNoel Resolution includeda sharp criticism of the sitting school board for itsresponsibility in allowing segregated schools to develop. Noel noted the community felt a “wide and deep distrust of its [the board’s] motives and actions by certain racial and ethnic groups…and permitting the educational and social evils occurring with de facto segregation.”Noel continued by chastising the board for being slow to accept federal government money that was specifically earmarked for integration programs.With this charge, she was accusing the board of intentionally promoting a segregated school environment as opposed to allowing one to form through negligence. As evidence to reinforce this claim, Noel cited the board’s refusal to build a new school complex in the Lowry neighborhood, a move that would have created a racially diverse and integrated school population.