Keyes v. School District Number One, Denver, Colorado; Eliminating the “Root and Branch” of School Segregation

Today’s post was written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver

The stark, black and white Denver Post photograph one finds online is startling; in it two firemen are sweeping broken glass from a window shattered by a pipe bomb while Wilfred Keyes and his wife, just shadows in the dark of the house, watch in the background. The year was 1970 and Keyes family not alone; federal judge William Doyle’s home was also hit along with the Denver Public School bus garage, starting a fire that took out of service nearly one third of the bus fleet. These acts of domestic terrorism emerged in response to a civil court case brought the year before, Keyes v. School District Number One, Denver, Colorado, the Case File C-1499 (NAID 76019394) of which has recently been accessioned into the National Archives at Denver’s Record Group 21; Records of the District Courts of the United States holdings.

Stedman featured image
Stedman Elementary School, Park Hill, Denver, CO

The Keyes case is not a household name in the way Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down de jure segregation in American schools 15 years earlier, is but it was a landmark case in its addressing of de facto segregation in public schools, that is segregation not enshrined in law but rather the result of circumstances and planning. The genesis of the 1969 case goes back one year earlier when in 1968 the Denver School Board passed the Noel Resolution, named after it’s champion, board member Rachel Noel who was the first African American woman ever elected to public office in Colorado. The Noel Resolution required the Denver Public School Superintendent to address educational inequalities in northeast Denver schools, where gerrymandered school districts, new school construction, use of mobile classrooms, and assignment of minority teachers were all shown to have created what amounted to segregation in several Denver schools. In response to the Noel Resolution, three new resolutions were proposed, debated, and passed to directly address the issue of segregation in the northeastern schools. Seizing on the busing aspect of the remedy, controversy roiled through Denver and the wave of indignation swept onto the school board two anti-busing members in May of 1969. Within weeks the three resolutions were rescinded and in response suit was brought in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado with Park Hill resident Wilfred Keyes as the lead plaintiff.

Supreme Court
Certified copy of Justice Brennan’s order vacating the 10th Circuit Court’s stay and placing Judge Doyle’s injunction back in place

The case swung into high gear almost immediately when the plaintiffs argued for an injunction placing the three resolutions back into effect and despite objections by the defendants that this amounted to trying to case before the trial even began, both sides argued throughout the month of July. On the 29th Judge Doyle issued the injunction placing the rescinded resolutions back into effect for the duration of the case. This decision was quickly appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, who vacated the injunction handing a victory to the defendants. The court transcripts from the day after show some tension in the court, with a lawyer for the defense praising the appeals court at one point stating “It seems to me that all this shows is that Circuit Court Judges are smarter than lawyers, which probable [sic] was not disputed to a great degree.” Judge Doyle brushed away the lawyer’s thin modesty and praise of the higher court, finishing with “I am sure you do approve of their action.” Doyle would be vindicated, however, when two days later Justice Brennan of the U.S. Supreme Court concluded the “stay was improvidently granted and must be vacated.” The desegregation plan was back into effect.

Transcript Example
An example from the thousands of pages of transcripts; a seemingly testy exchange from the fall of 1969.

The fall of 1969 was relatively quiet, as set trial dates came and went making it look more and more likely the case would not be heard until 1970. Both sides continued to jockey for position, objecting to evidence and testimony first introduced during the preliminary injunction hearings and requesting clarification from witnesses. It is in this back and forth within the briefs one sees the peculiar place the pro-integration school board members found themselves. By virtue of being school board members, they were listed as defendants yet Rachel Noel, Dr. John Amesse, and James Voorhees Jr. all vigorously supported the integration efforts that were ultimately rescinded by the school board.

Rachel Noel signature
The signatures of the three school board members who voted against rescinding the integration policies, in their answer filed with the court admitting the plaintiff’s allegations and asking that the relief requested by the plaintiffs be granted.

Filing a brief in the summer of 1969 stating they agreed with and admitted to the plaintiff’s complaints, all three headlined the plaintiff’s preliminary list of witnesses. Nearly 50 lines of Rachel Noel’s testimony alone during the preliminary injunction hearing resulted in objections by the defense that fall.

The trial finally began in February 1970 and lasted 14 days but in hindsight, given the strong rebuke of Judge Doyle in the July 1969 preliminary injunction, the outcome does not seem all that surprising. The court found that the Denver public schools in the northeastern portion of the city had engaged in policies and practices that had led to racially segregated schools.

Remedies were prepared over the ensuing months and formally ordered on June 8th when Judge Doyle issued the Final Decree and Judgement. The case was appealed, making its way again to the 10th Circuit before landing on the docket of the Supreme Court in 1972, where in 1973 the majority largely upheld the decision, sending it back to the lower court for implementation as well as sweepingly stating that if one school is found to be segregated, then the entirety the school system was segregated and needed to be addressed. What had been created to fix the issues in the Park Hill neighborhood schools alone would now have to be applied district wide and the Denver school system would labor until 1997, when the last of the appeals were finally dismissed with the courts finding the Denver school system “had eliminated to the extent practicable the vestiges and effects of its past discriminatory acts, and had thereby altered the Denver schools from a segregated dual system to unitary status.” Today the several decade long drama not only remains in the memory of many Denver natives, but now can be seen and read in the National Archives at Denver collection.


For more information about the USDC case file and subsequent appellate case files, contact the National Archives at Denver at denver.archives@nara.gov. Other sources providing historical context, outside the original court case and subsequent appellate and Supreme Court decisions, include:

Connery, Robert. “Keyes v. School District No.1: A Personal Remembrance of Things Past and Present.” Denver University Law Review, vol. 90, no. 5, pp. 1083-1114.

Horn, C. L., & Kurlaender, M. “The End of Keyes: Resegregation Trends and Achievement in Denver Public Schools” The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2006, pp. 1-29.

Gardner, Natasha. “The Legacy of Denver’s Forced School Busing Era” 5280 June 2018.

 

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