An Angel Silenced

Sixty-five years after her death, Emily Griffith’s legacy still influences Denver.

December 2012

Emily Griffith was born in 1868 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her family eventually migrated to Nebraska to try homesteading, only to find that Griffith’s father couldn’t effectively farm the Plains’ unforgiving sod. The second-oldest child, Emily started teaching by the age of 16 to support her family—especially her sister, Florence, who suffered from an unidentified learning disability.

After the Griffiths moved to Denver in 1894, Emily soon started substitute teaching for Denver Public Schools. She eventually worked her way to a permanent gig at a local school, and when she noticed that an unusual number of her students were skipping classes, she decided to figure out why. Once she learned that many of them were immigrants who endured poverty, language barriers, and culture shock, Griffith started holding night classes to teach her students’ parents the basic skills they’d need to survive in Denver.

This was World War I–era America, and for every immigrant Griffith helped, another one arrived at Union Station. She needed to expand, and she convinced the Denver school board to let her try. In 1916, Griffith bet her reputation as a teacher against these gnawing questions: In a country so replete with immigrants, why didn’t America reach out to its new workers by offering citizenship and English classes? And why did it cost so much to learn a trade? She envisioned an “opportunity” school where adults could learn a variety of vocations, attendance wouldn’t be required (because working students’ schedules were unpredictable), and tuition would be free to all Denverites.

Because there was no other program like it in the West, Griffith didn’t know if the school would work. Neither did the school board, which cautiously agreed to let her use two rooms in a ramshackle building at 13th and Welton. The board replaced the windows and provided the fledgling school with desks, a box of chalk, and a portable blackboard. There was one typewriter. Over the main door, a painted sign read: “Public Opportunity School—For All Who Wish to Learn.” The petite, brown-haired, blue-eyed Griffith set up her rolltop principal’s desk in the hallway near the entrance. She was hoping to attract about 200 students that first year; instead, the school welcomed 1,400 in the first week.

Early classes focused on millinery, bricklaying, and carpentry. If 20 students requested a specific course, Griffith would create it. There were so many students that some classes were forced to meet in hallways or on the steps. Every day, Griffith showed up—often sporting hats created by the school’s students—and found a way to make things work, to stay open a little longer.

Although the Opportunity School operated 13 hours a day, Griffith’s work extended well beyond simple teaching and administration. After one of her students fainted in class because he didn’t have time to eat between work and school, Griffith implored her mother to start making soup, which Griffith sometimes carried to the school on a streetcar and served to any student who needed a meal—sometimes often more than 200 free bowls a day.

It’s little wonder that by 1934, Griffith was exhausted. She’d simply given too much, to too many, for too long. Her relentless schedule had somewhat compromised her social life—although she had many friends and occasional suitors, Griffith never married or had children—so she quietly retired and moved to a makeshift cabin in Pinecliffe with her sister, Florence. The builder of the home was an old friend and former teacher at the school named Fred Lundy. The cabin was rustic, simple—and isolated.