At 9:30 p.m. on a chilly February evening in 1970, a series of huge explosions rocked Denver’s Congress Park neighborhood.
If not for the darkness, bystanders would have seen smoke pouring from the school bus depot at 2920 W. Seventh Ave. By the time school officials arrived, they found little but the twisted, smoldering metal shells of 24 school buses, with another 15 severely damaged. Why would anyone want to destroy one-third of Denver’s school bus fleet? The answer is simple — the buses were newly purchased to comply with court-ordered integration.
And that was just the beginning of the violence, according to local historian Phil Goodstein’s new book, “The Denver School Busing Wars.” The second volume in his trilogy about the history of the city’s public schools, “Busing Wars” explores the 30-year conflict, aided by many historic photos and striking drawings by local artists.
The busing era ended 26 years ago and affected only 5% of the nation’s students. Why explore such a long-buried controversy? Part of the reason lies in Goodstein’s passion for history, which began in the late 1960s when he was a student at East High School, and culminated with a doctorate from the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“After reading about the organized labor movement in New York in the 1920s, I realized these upheavals of the 1960s are nothing new,” Goodstein said. “The advantage of history is you can always see how people repeat the same mistakes.”
Busing also resurfaced as a hot topic during the recent presidential debates. In June 2019, Kamala Harris, now vice president, reproved her boss-to-be, Joe Biden, for opposing busing in the `60s. She cited the positive difference it made in her life, widening her horizons beyond the working-class Berkeley neighborhood where she grew up. That view is shared by many Americans of color. According to Chalkbeat, a website that reports on education in Colorado, research shows that Black students who were bused to more affluent schools were more likely to graduate from college, earn more and enjoy better health. The research found no negative effects on white students’ graduation rates or adult earnings.
Still, in the dark days of the early 1970s, Goodstein wrote that the city of Denver “became unhinged.” Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs and death threats assailed school board members and pro-busing activists.
Amid all the sound and fury, something important was at stake. At the time, it was nearly impossible for children of color to get a decent education. Jim Crow schools pervaded the South, designed to train Black sharecroppers’ children for farming and domestic service — and little else. The late Benjamin E. Mays, the former president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote that the Jim Crow system “has warped the minds and spirits of thousands of Negro youths.”
Things were hardly better in Denver, where Denver Public Schools shunted children of color into what Goodstein describes as “Denver’s informal Jim Crow system.” A 2013 article by Colorado Public Radio education reporter Jenny Brundin recounts that children in one such school were barely reading by the end of third grade. Latino parents also worried about the quality of their neighborhood schools, which had the city’s lowest achievement levels and highest dropout rates.
Goodstein’s book travels through Denver’s first attempts to ignore, defy and then grudgingly comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 mandate to de-segregate public schools. Goodstein introduces readers to local activists such as Rachel Noel, a Black sociologist who was elected to the all-white DPS Board of Education in 1965. The soft-spoken Park Hill mother was outraged to find her two children being funneled into the under-equipped, largely Black, Barrett Elementary School. Instead, Noel put her children on the bus to the top-rated Park Hill School, which was mostly white. Believing that children of different races would benefit by going to school together, she introduced Resolution 1490, which required DPS to create a plan to integrate public schools.
Noel’s resolution triggered a backlash, however. Angry Denver voters elected two opponents to busing to the Board of Education, which promptly rescinded the Noel plan. That led to the famous Keyes vs. District One lawsuit, described by CPR’s Brundin as “the biggest desegregation case outside the South.” Like Rachel Noel, Wilford Keyes was also an African-American resident of Park Hill, frustrated by numerous attempts to find quality public schools for his two children. The Keyes lawsuit accused DPS of violating the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which forbids the states to deny equal protection to any citizen. Eventually, the plaintiffs won their case before the Supreme Court.
In the fall of 1970, buses began transporting a total of 8,380 Denver children to more affluent, largely white schools outside their neighborhoods. DPS had pinned its hopes on last-minute appeals, Goodstein notes, and was ill-prepared to deal with the new reality.
In many ways, Goodstein, who doesn’t own a car and bikes everywhere, still identifies with the 1960s counterculture. At East High, he hung out with anti-war intellectuals and rebelled against the school’s “regimented, militaristic” approach to education. He admired social critic Paul Goodman, whose bestseller, “Growing up Absurd,” rocked the 1960s with its claim that oppressive school culture alienates and criminalizes young people. But unlike many liberals, Goodstein is no fan of busing. He feels the program was a failure because “integration was only on the surface.”
“In some ways,” Goodstein said, “the schools are a mirror of what’s happening in the larger society.”
He feels the problem goes way beyond segregation.
“It’s poverty,” he said. “DPS can’t serve poor kids well because the schools reflect the problems in the community.”
Goodstein is especially critical of the schools’ regimented style — too rigid to adapt to and support incoming students. By way of example, he cited the “conservative” approach at South High in Washington Park. While today South is a bastion of diversity, acclaimed for its supportive ESL program for refugees from 62 nations, in the fall of 1970, students of color arrived to a chilly reception. There were no small orientation sessions, get-acquainted socials or locker buddies. Teens were punished for travel delays that were not their fault. Worst of all, many students from Denver’s underfunded `Jim Crow’ schools were unprepared for academic rigor.
The new students never received the support they needed to catch up, Goodstein said. Instead, “they were marked down and taunted by whites.”
This triggered student walk-outs, strikes and violent clashes. The schools responded by stationing police in the halls. After one student melee, South closed for a day. Later that fall, George Washington High School closed for 10 days, following a series of clashes climaxing with about 250 young people battling the police.
As the `70s and the buses rolled on, anger and violence faded. During the `80s, more and more white families put their children into private schools or departed for the suburbs. In September 1995, Denver Judge Richard Matsch finally released the city from court-ordered busing. According to Goodstein’s book, Matsch believed that the busing order “had achieved all it possibly could. Besides, the massive drop in white enrollment … meant there simply were not enough white children left in the system for court-ordered integration to be meaningful.”
Today, reflecting a national trend, Denver schools are just as segregated as they were when Rachel Noel first joined the Board of Education in 1965. While this appears to be the result of economic disparity rather than Jim Crow, the effect is similar — a wide achievement gap between white, Black and Latino students. And of course, Jim Crow laws and attitudes helped create that economic disparity.
In the wake of former Superintendent Susana Cordova’s departure in 2020, the search is on for new DPS leadership. Clearly whoever heads DPS next has their work cut out for them. Goodstein would probably urge them to study the past.
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