“Throughout history, neighborhoods have shifted from predominately one race to another. Some go from white to black to white again,” says Denver historian and author, Phil Goodstein.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Five Points was known as the “Harlem of the West,” where prosperous black doctors, lawyers, dentists and clergy lived, according to the Five Points Business District History. It became a thriving cultural arts district with more than 50 bars and clubs, where jazz musicians such as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington performed. Real estate companies, drug stores, religious organizations, tailors, restaurants and barbers provided goods and services for the black residents.
After World War II, Denver had a large influx of African Americans. Many were GIs who had trained or been stationed at Lowry Field, Buckley Field, Fort Logan, Fitzsimons Army Hospital, Camp Carson or Camp Hale. After the war ended, they returned to Colorado to settle and raise their families. Many sought defense jobs at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
Many of the new African Americans settled in Five Points because the neighborhood was considered open to blacks at that time, but there wasn’t enough housing to support the influx. Houses were scraped and turned into multiple smaller houses or apartments. The shortage of housing led to overcrowding, dilapidation and crime. In the late ’50s and early ’60s many African Americans moved out, known as “black flight.”
African Americans unfortunately couldn’t move wherever they wanted, though. The Colorado State Fair Housing Act of 1957 made it unlawful to discriminate in the sale, rental or financing of housing based on race, religion, sex, nationality or ancestry. But there was one major loophole—it excluded homeowners who were still living in their home. Basically, a person could sell or not sell to whomever they wanted.
Realtors wouldn’t show homes to black people in predominately white neighborhoods. Landlords told African Americans, “I’m sorry, the apartment was just rented,” and then rented it to a white family later that day.
Plus, banks did not finance home loans for African Americans interested in older nice neighborhoods, a practice known as redlining. Banks literally drew red lines around neighborhoods where they would not invest and/or around neighborhoods where they would not offer loans to minorities.
But gradually throughout the 1950s, African Americans who could afford it moved farther and farther east seeking better homes and schools. Originally, the farthest east black people lived was Downing St. Then in 1954, Manual High School was built, and African Americans moved farther east to York St.
Sandra Dillard, an African American and founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, lived from 1952–1970 at 2510 Vine, one block west of York. Her family was the first African American family on the block. She says a neighbor poisoned her mother’s dog after they moved in. “We didn’t bother anybody, just went to school and came home,” Dillard says.
In the late ’50s, the line where black families lived was Colorado Blvd., just across the street from Park Hill, historically the white, affluent community. With tall trees, big homes, good schools and nearby libraries, Park Hill had become the ideal neighborhood in Denver.
Colorado Blvd. acted as a type of Mason-Dixon line to separate blacks from the upper crust of Denver. But in 1960, African Americans who could afford Park Hill homes and found progressive realtors made the jump. “It was of the utmost prestige to cross Colorado Blvd. as an African American,” Goodstein says.
As the number of African Americans in Park Hill increased, a surprising change happened. Realtors saw an opportunity to make money. While they had previously done everything to keep blacks out, now they wanted blacks to move in. “They wanted the wealthy African Americans to move in and transition it to a black neighborhood,” Goodstein says.
When a black person moved into a block, realtors called the other white residents and warned about a “black invasion.” “You better get out while you still can, they’d say,” according to Helen Wolcott, who’s lived at 2309 Clermont since 1961. “They called weekly asking us to list our home.”
For Sale signs popped up like weeds. The fearful white people fled in masses, known as “white flight.”
In 1961, thirty residents, including Wolcott, met at Montview Presbyterian Church and formed the Park Hill Action Committee, Inc. (PHAC). Their goals were to maintain Park Hill as one of the finest neighborhoods in Denver, and find a solution to the fear and prejudice around integration. Wolcott firmly believed integration was the morally right thing to do. She grew up in a wealthy Jewish neighborhood in Kansas City. She loved her black nannies as her real mothers. It wasn’t until she started reading authors like James Baldwin that she knew civil rights existed and recognized the racism she grew up in. She vowed her children would have different childhoods than her own.
Wolcott and the PHAC encouraged white residents to not flee but to stay and help integrate the neighborhood. Many white residents feared that once black people moved into Park Hill, the neighborhood would fall into disrepair like Five Points. They said black people could live in their neighborhoods if they maintained their homes and lawns. PHAC pressured the city of Denver to keep up city services in Park Hill, including street paving and trash collection.
Anna Jo Haynes, a life-long political activist and African American, joined the Park Hill Action Committee as well. She lived at 26th and Cook, west of Colorado Blvd.
“The PHAC set up dinners where people could spend time talking about race relations,” Haynes says. “They invited speakers who were very involved in what was happening. People could ask questions without being fearful on both sides and wonderful relationships were established.”
Haynes and Wolcott, who each had five children about the same ages, became close friends and champion picketers of segregated institutions. Wolcott picketed taxi companies that refused to hire black people or drive into black neighborhoods. She picketed Denver Dry Goods, a department store that wouldn’t hire black people. She integrated the Cub Scouts.
The Denver School Board built enough schools in black neighborhoods that the black students wouldn’t need to leave and go to a white school, resulting in segregated schools. Haynes fought for desegregation in DPS.
“Integrated neighborhoods was a bigger issue than just housing,” Haynes says. “It was important to desegregate neighborhoods to desegregate the schools.”
Having all minorities in one area doesn’t solve anything, according to Haynes. It perpetuates lower levels of education, lower standards of achievement among minorities and problems for members of all races and school boards. Haynes’ children were among the first African Americans to volunteer to be bused to predominately white schools for a better education.
Together, Haynes and Wolcott fought for fair housing, once staying at Gov. Love’s office for 48 hours straight until he added it to his agenda. He believed the 1957 Fair Housing Act worked just fine.
Then in 1968, on the heels of Martin Luther King’s assassination, integration efforts in Denver and all over the U.S. gained momentum. Denver’s Noel Resolution (named after Denver’s first black school board member, Rachel Noel) to desegregate schools and the Federal Fair Housing Act were both passed in April 1968.
Haynes and Wolcott agree it was a scary but exciting time in Denver. For several years, Wolcott relished the integration in Park Hill. Her block at 23rd and Clermont was half white and half black for several years. Park Hill became a national example of interracial living.
But, fast-forward to today and Park Hill looks very different. Although redlining no longer exists, Park Hill has become less integrated on its own. A 2010 census by the Piton Foundation shows South Park Hill is 84 percent white and not even 1 percent black. North Park Hill is 50 percent white and 39 percent black. Housing prices in Park Hill and all over Denver have skyrocketed. Homeowners who cannot afford to maintain the older homes are taking advantage of increasing home values and moving to the suburbs.
“It’s so frustrating to see what has happened,” Wolcott says. Her block is almost entirely white now.
Haynes, who now lives at 30th and Dexter, which has historically been all African American, is one of four black families left on her block. While the number of young, wealthy families moving in is considered progress in many ways, Haynes fears Denver will become a primarily white city. She calls it “urban removal,” instead of urban renewal. The best example is Five Points, which is now almost all white and the youngest, hippest Denver neighborhood, according to Haynes.
It begs the question: Are the vital interests Park Hill residents fought to protect in the ’60s and ’70s still the interests today? Can integration last? “When leadership isn’t cultivated, when you lose history, you no longer have that same feeling of why it’s important to integrate …” Haynes says. “You have to do what Park Hill originally did, which is have dinners and talk to each other about race. If you have churches, neighborhood organizations and people working together, we might be able to stop the flow of African Americans just leaving in droves.”