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The charred remains of Denver school buses destroyed in an explosion on February 5, 1970; no one was charged for the crime. Photo courtesy of the Denver Post/Getty Images

The Legacy of Denver’s Forced School Busing Era

Forty-five years ago, DPS was ordered to desegregate schools. Did it work?

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The phone calls started when Rachel Noel was elected to Denver Public Schools’ board in 1965. The time of the interruption would vary, but the family knew that every day, without fail, someone would call their home and breathe into the phone. The family nicknamed the stalker “The Phantom.” They refused to say hello or be intimidated. Instead, they’d pick up the phone and have a moment of shared silence with their harasser.

Rachel and her husband, Dr. Edmond Noel, were both raised in the South and had chosen to move to the Mile High City in 1949 because of its promise. Rachel, an educator, scholar, and community volunteer, became Colorado’s first elected black woman; Edmond was one of the state’s first black surgeons. Together, they were changing post–World War II Denver. Now there was someone angry enough to call the Noels’ home north of City Park every single day. The behavior never escalated, but the intention to terrorize the family was clear. The Noels, however, refused to change or unlist their number.

The calls continued as Rachel worked on the school board. She, along with a growing pool of supporters, activists, and community members, accelerated an educational reform movement that wouldn’t be stopped—not even when the violence started.

On February 5, 1970, at the DPS school bus depot on Seventh Avenue near Federal Boulevard, a series of explosions around 9:30 p.m. traveled down a line of school buses parked so close together that the flames leaped from one to another. Nearly one-third of the fleet was burned or damaged. The act appeared to be a response to a lawsuit filed by eight Denver families the previous June, which argued that DPS schools—particularly in northeast Denver—were segregated and provided unequal education. The case, Keyes v. School District No. 1, had divided the community, particularly on the question of busing, which was generally seen as a means to integrate schools in neighborhoods that were decidedly not.

The District Court agreed with the plaintiffs. Then the buses burned.

From the beginning, 1970 looked to be every bit as historic as 1969 had been. National politics dominated headlines as President Richard Nixon entered his second year in office. Weekly updates on the successful Apollo missions continued to stretch the country’s imagination of what was possible. And Americans were learning more details about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Locally, headlines about the school bus bombing were replaced later that same month with more stories of terrorism after a pipe bomb obliterated the front door of the Keyes family’s home. The lead plaintiff was home at the time, with his family, when they heard a sound at the door. Wilfred Keyes went to investigate and managed to throw water on the bomb before it exploded. No one was physically hurt, even though the explosive ripped a railing off the porch.

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The bombings would become indelible images of the time period in which the Keyes case was tried, but they captured only a few moments of violence in a much larger story of the city’s efforts to create equitable schools—a story that cannot be told without a discussion of the life of Rachel Noel.

Rachel Noel helped propel DPS integration. Photo courtesy of the Denver Post/Getty Images

Rachel Bassette was born in Hampton, Virginia, in 1918. Her mother was an educator, her father a lawyer. Her grandfather, a former slave, was also an attorney. She went to the Hampton Institute (now called Hampton University) and then on to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she earned a master’s in sociology. While she was at Fisk, she met Edmond, a medical student at nearby Meharry Medical College. They married shortly before Edmond left to serve as a captain in the South Pacific during WWII. When he returned to the States, he finished his residency (the Noels’ son, Edmond “Buddy” Noel Jr., was born in 1946) and the family moved to Colorado. Edmond worked at General Rose Memorial Hospital (now Rose Medical Center), the only hospital in Denver that would give a black doctor privileges at the time.

The couple set about building a life in their new home at 23rd Avenue and Vine Street. They were the second black family to live on the mostly white block; decades of racially motivated real estate and lending practices, including redlining and blockbusting, had helped segregate the city. As those policies and practices started to change ever so slightly, the city’s black population began buying more homes in east Denver, and the Noels were at the forefront of that movement. As her children got older (a daughter, Angela, was born in 1950), Rachel made sure family dinner was a daily occurrence, even with her husband’s unpredictable hours at Rose. Eventually, the Noels built a home at 2601 Adams Street, across from the City Park Golf Course. This time, they were the first black family on the block.

As more nonwhite families followed the Noels and invested in this part of Denver, DPS created an optional busing district, through which parents could choose to send their elementary-age children to Columbine Elementary School, which enrolled predominately black students, or to nearby Park Hill Elementary, which had mostly white students and more resources. This was a new option for families, who in the past usually had only one option: the neighborhood school. The Noels chose to bus their kids to Park Hill, which they thought was better.

A few years later, in 1960, DPS opened Barrett Elementary (near Colorado Boulevard and 29th Avenue) and shut down the optional busing district. Barrett, it seemed to many in the area, was built specifically to keep black students out of nearby white schools. Rachel’s daughter enrolled in the new school, and the educational difference from Park Hill was stark: Park Hill had noticeably better resources than Barrett.
Rachel wasn’t the only one to notice. The local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group active in desegregation efforts around the country, was collecting data on inequity in schools. Using an old mimeograph machine to print flyers detailing their findings, the CORE delivered its dispatches at night to the front porches of black families, especially those living in northeast Denver. The CORE recruited white families to tour predominately white schools and report back on teachers, materials, and facilities. When Rachel—who’d been urged to run by other board members—campaigned for the school board in 1965, that growing knowledge helped her win. “We got her elected because people had the data,” Anna Jo Haynes, then a CORE member, recalls. “If they couldn’t afford the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, the information was delivered to them.”

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The 1965DPS school board; protestors in 1971 voicing support for neighborhood schools instead of busing. Photo courtesy of the Denver Public Library/Western History Collection

Rachel worked persistently for change once she was on the school board, but when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, she felt compelled to do more. She, with the help of fellow board member Edgar Benton and others, created a document that would become known as the Noel Resolution. The paper, officially Resolution 1490, offered a host of solutions for the school district, from creating magnet schools to the extension of intercultural and interracial experiences for students to busing. On May 16, 1968, the Noel Resolution passed with a 5-2 vote. It demanded nothing less than “a comprehensive plan for the integration of Denver Public Schools.”

In the fall of 1968, DPS superintendent Robert Gilberts was tasked with presenting the 131-page integration plan prompted by the Noel Resolution to the community at multiple hourslong meetings broadcast on a local television station. The issue of busing—which was only briefly discussed in the document—dominated the discussion. The Rocky Mountain News quoted Gilberts in a September 4, 1968, article: “Spanish, Negro, and white citizens of Denver are generally opposed to the idea of transporting youngsters on the scale required to achieve racial balance.” The school board pushed ahead that winter and adopted several resolutions, including limited busing in northeast Denver, to implement the integration plan.

The urgency was warranted: The upcoming school board election, slated for May 20, 1969, featured multiple anti-busing candidates. Before the vote, the Denver Post published a piece in the opinion section that endorsed pro-integration candidates Monte Pascoe and Benton: “The voters’ verdict will improve or worsen the city’s racial relations scene for years to come—in areas far outside the public schools.” Two anti-busing candidates won, and the board voted down some of the existing integration proposals on June 9, 1969. Ten days later, eight families sued DPS.

Park Hill resident and chiropractor Wilfred Keyes had signed on as the lead plaintiff. He told the Rocky Mountain News in 1985: “I was not for busing. I was for equal education. But if busing was the mode of transportation to achieve equal education, then I support it.” The district, the plaintiffs argued, had spent the previous decade shifting enrollment boundary lines to segregate schools and had provided inequitable resources to northeast Denver schools. Not surprisingly, Rachel Noel testified at the trial. In late July 1969, District Judge William Doyle ruled for the plaintiffs, ordering a preliminary injunction to reinstate integration efforts. Benton, who is now 91 years old, recalls that protestors carried signs that read: “Boil Doyle in Oil.”

The decision set off a series of appeals that sent the Keyes case to the Supreme Court of the United States. Tom Romero, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law who has written extensively about the case, says Keyes allowed the court to further define what Brown v. Board of Education meant in states that didn’t have blatant segregated education laws (“de jure segregation”) but created segregation in other ways (“de facto segregation”). “Denver provided an opportunity to extend Brown beyond the Southern context,” Romero says. “Denver had a more evenly balanced mix. It was not just white and black, but also Mexican Americans and Chicanos.”

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In a June 21, 1973, opinion, written by Justice William Brennan, the court described Denver as a “triethnic city,” adding that “Negroes and Hispanos in Denver suffer identical discrimination in treatment when compared with the treatment afforded Anglo students.” Brennan went on: “To maintain, encourage and continue segregation in the public schools in the face of the clear mandates of Brown v. Board of Ed. cannot be considered innocent.” Protestors in Denver reacted by hanging a likeness of Brennan.

 

Nearly 10 years after the Keyes decision in 1973, a bus loads up at south Denver’s Sabin Elementary School. Photo courtesy of the Denver Post/Getty Images

The result was a citywide busing effort to maintain racial balances in city schools. Some students could still attend their neighborhood schools—if the student population met the court-ordered ratio for integration—but others would be transported to classrooms across the city to create more diverse school populations.

White families started leaving the city almost immediately. White flight wasn’t new; suburbs had become increasingly popular around the country since the end of WWII. But now DPS began to lose students at a rapid pace: From 1970 to 1975, district enrollment dropped 21 percent. Meanwhile, Colorado voters approved the Poundstone Amendment in 1974, which limited Denver’s growth and, many believed, was an effort to ensure suburban school districts wouldn’t face mandatory busing.

Buddy Noel remembers his mom frequently receiving calls from teachers who’d complain that the district was actively resisting integration efforts with overly complicated busing routes, which left students exhausted before the school day even began. Indeed, busing plans did crisscross the city in perplexing patterns. “We could get beer and cigarettes to the front lines of Vietnam, and we could get me to Park Hill,” Buddy says, “so I knew we could get kids to school.”

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Over the next two decades, DPS regularly sought an end to mandatory busing. Inevitably, when the issue came up, the local papers would call Rachel. In 1981, she told the Rocky Mountain News: “We have black kids and white kids in school together today, but we really have segregation within the school building…that means it isn’t working as it should or as we thought it would.” Thirteen years later, in 1994, she told a reporter at the Rocky: “It’s too easy to forget that the real focus should be offering equal educational opportunities for all students.”

Parents complained about the hours their children spent on the road. People who’d supported busing worried that it didn’t actually address inequity. Others missed the community that can come with robust neighborhood schools. Denver went to the court repeatedly and asked to be released from mandatory busing. On September 12, 1995, the District Court concurred, arguing in its ruling that Denver had changed: “The current mayor of Denver is black. His predecessor was Hispanic. A black woman has been superintendent of schools.” With that, Denver’s mandatory busing ended, and DPS didn’t have an extensive plan for what to do if the end of busing resegregated schools—which it would.

A look at key dates in Denver’s mandatory busing history. Clockwise from top: The Denver Post via Getty Images; John G. White/the Denver Post via Getty Images; Denver Public Library/Western History Collection

Climbing on a DPS bus today feels a bit like opening a time capsule from your youth. The vehicles are newer, the engines are better, and the shocks are more advanced (although everything still shakes and rattles). But for most, the exterior’s marigold paint is unchanged. So are the windows that open just a few inches, the two-by-two bench seating, and the kids who goof off when they think the bus driver isn’t paying attention. For the generation of Denver children who attended school during the mandatory busing period, the yellow school bus was a part of daily life.

Today, only 20,000 of DPS’ 92,331 students—about 22 percent—use school buses to get to and from school, even though students can now enroll in any public school in the state. But the district doesn’t provide transportation for students who opt out of their local schools (with some exceptions).

That means parents who might prefer crosstown schools for their children have to factor in their work schedules and a lack of transportation options—most elementary students are too young to ride RTD buses unattended—which often makes neighborhood schools the default option. DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg says the cost of putting one bus on the road is similar to the cost of placing a teacher in a classroom. “We’d rather invest in a great teacher in a student’s neighborhood school than in a bus to transport that student across town,” he says.

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Busing is still a fraught topic in Denver, although it holds less sting than it once did. Boasberg says when he became superintendent nearly 10 years ago, one of the first things he read was the Keyes decision. “I think it is of profound importance in how it shaped the city and how it has shaped views of education,” Boasberg says. “The work we do today is based in the belief that all kids learn better in integrated environments.” His definition of integration includes: “children of different cultures, backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses coming together.”

Some who were bused, like Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, point to the advantages of learning in a diverse classroom. “Was it a perfect experiment? No,” Hancock says. “Was there more upside than downside? Absolutely.” But he cautions that the work to create equitable schools did not end when busing stopped in 1995: “We should not tie opportunity and exposure to a high-quality education experience to the zip code that people live in.” That connection between neighborhoods and schools was a focus of DPS’ Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, a committee formed in 2017 to examine, among other things, the impact of gentrification on the education system.

And broader dialogue about the legacy of mandatory busing endures. Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler, founder of the Equity Project LLC, a consulting group in Denver, grew up in the South during the 1960s and remembers drinking from separate water fountains. When asked if the Noel Resolution and the Keyes decision worked, she says: “We have gone from literal to subliminal racism, which hurts the same but looks different.” In education, specifically, Mosby Tyler sees opportunities to build on the progress that has been made. “The Keyes case chipped away at inequity,” she says. “We have to get to what the purpose of the neighborhood public school is. Why do we want this type of school?”

An education advocacy group, A+ Colorado, tackled the “why” in a January 2018 report called “Learn Together, Live Together: A Call to Integrate Denver’s Schools,” which found that Denver schools are still segregated. “What’s interesting—depressing, but also a pretty huge opportunity—is how much, on some fronts, things are exactly the same, and on other fronts, things have really changed,” says A+ Colorado’s CEO, Van Schoales. “I feel like there is this ‘Denver nice.’ We don’t talk about race and class issues easily in this community.” The report makes a case for why integrated and equitable schools “lift” all kids. It offers policy goals and, 23 years after mandatory busing ended, addresses the topic: “Transportation is expensive, but it cannot be a barrier to students accessing a quality program of their choice.”

The report has critics, including Antwan Jefferson, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development, who served on the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative. He wrote a response that called for input from more community experts and a deeper look at how coded language (calling a traditionally black neighborhood a “stronghold”), privilege, and bias impact education policy discussions today. “If integration is the answer, what is the question?” Jefferson asks, in general, of education policy. “Grouping children by race is really problematic because it assumes that race is a determinant of academic performance.”

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Meanwhile, DPS continues to try solutions, like creating enrollment zones, which can lead to more integrated schools as wider boundaries can contain more diverse populations. But is it enough? “I believe integration is good and can break down boundaries, but it doesn’t address racial inequalities,” says Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, a social justice nonprofit. “Equal does not mean equitable.” He says DPS can do more to hire and retain teachers of color (the district has a program designed to do just that) and ensure that resources are equitably spread throughout the district. (“We’re investing more where there is greater student need,” Boasberg says.)

DU’s Tom Romero, who was bused in elementary school, says the mandatory busing period still has a role in Denver’s future. “There’s a lot of mythos involved in what Denver means for people,” Romero says. “When it comes to the issue and topic of Keyes, part of that mythos is that Denver is a post-racial city. It will be hard to move forward if we, as a community, continue to cling to that notion.”

If Rachel Noel were still alive—she died on February 4, 2008—there’s no doubt she’d weigh in, too. And her legacy looms large over the ongoing debate about equity in public schools: She has a school named after her, a professorship in her name at Metropolitan State University of Denver (where she taught), and a stained-glass-window portrait in Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church. A few years ago, Buddy donated a trove of old speeches and documents, typed or written in Rachel’s clear, graceful, and determined handwriting, to Denver’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. In one of those documents, the text of a speech she delivered to students about Denver’s integration efforts, Rachel left a prophetic message: “I want you to remember—change was necessary. We must never give up our goal: Equal educational opportunity for all.”

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