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We’re honored to highlight a few of Colorado’s Black leaders and their enduring impact on education and policy as part of Black History Month. While many of us recognize these names, we may not know the accomplishments and courage behind them. It’s really fulfilling to get to tell the stories of these incredible people. – Solomon Dold, CYC VISTA Development and Database Specialist
Marie Anderson Greenwood
Marie Greenwood was the first African-American teacher to obtain tenure in the state of Colorado after teaching at Whittier Elementary. At age 13, Greenwood’s family moved to Denver in search of more economic opportunity. At her first high school, Greenwood was discouraged by an academic advisor from pursuing higher education despite the fact that she ranked in the top ten percent of her class. Instead of accepting that racist “advice”, her family moved to the West High School area where her academic achievement was recognized with the National Merit Scholarship. In 1931, Greenwood attended the University of Northern Colorado and in 1935, her pastor encouraged her to take the Colorado State Teachers Examination, which she passed. Lila M. O’Boyle, a white principal in the Denver Public Schools, contacted Greenwood with a job offer at Whittier Elementary to teach first grade and upon graduation from UNC, she accepted and in 1938 became the first African-American teacher to obtain tenure in the state. After taking time away from teaching to become a stay-at-home mom, her four children became the first African-American children to attend Newlon Elementary School, a previously all-white school. In 1953, Greenwood became a regular substitute at Newlon and then two years later, she became a full-time educator there, making her the first African-American teacher to be placed in an all-white school in Denver Public School history. Greenwood’s renowned career and legacy in education has awarded her great recognition in Colorado’s history. In 2001, the Marie Greenwood Academy in Denver, a school serving elementary and junior high students, was named in her honor. The educational non-profit, Friends of Marie L. Greenwood, was founded to support students at the school.
Dr. Omar D. Blair
Dr. Omar D. Blair was the first African-American to serve as the President of the Board of Education in Denver. Omar’s time as president was one of the most intense in Denver’s history as the city was working hard to desegregate its school system at the time. Racial tensions were high and, during the peak of this divisive time, 37 school buses were bombed. Dr. Blair graduated from Albuquerque High School in 1936, one of only six black graduates. He attended the University of California Los Angeles for two years before entering the Air Force. While in the Air Force Dr. Blair became a Captain in the all-black 332nd Fighter Squadron, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Before serving two terms on the Denver Board of Education (1972-1984) he served his community as Commissioner of the Denver Urban Renewal Board during which time they began the 16th Street Mall project. Omar D. Blair Charter School and the Blair-Caldwell Library are both named after him and his dedication to public service and education in Denver. Throughout it all, Omar never wavered in his commitment to our youth saying “The kids are what it’s all about,” on many occasions.
Rachel B. Noel
In 1965, Rachel B. Noel became the first African-American on the Denver Board of Education, and the first African American woman to hold public office anywhere in the State of Colorado. In fact, the “Noel Resolution” laid out a plan to integrate Denver schools. Noel also went on to chair the Metropolitan State University’s African-American Studies department. Noel and her husband, Edmond Noel (who became the first African-American doctor to work in a Denver Hospital in 1949), moved to Denver in 1949. Originally moving to Five Points, the Noel family decided to relocate to Park Hill because the schools were better. However, after facing racism and Denver Public School’s de facto segregation, Rachel decided that something had to be done and after her election to the Denver Board of Education in 1965 she introduced Resolution 1520 to the Denver Board of Education. Commonly referred to as the “Noel Resolution,” it called for an immediate end to the social policy of de facto segregation in Denver. The Noel Resolution recommended closing some of the overpopulated schools for minorities, and instead integrating students into quality schools across the city. Denver students were much more supportive of the Noel Resolution, in fact, when parents gathered to protest the resolution, over 200 high school students of all races formed a counter-protest to show their support. In January of 1969, the Denver School Board passed the Noel Resolution but it was quickly repealed in June. When Noel’s term on the Board of Education ended, she chose to not run again, instead accepting a position as professor of African-American Studies at Metropolitan State University in Denver. In 1976, a member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents passed away unexpectedly with fifteen months left in his term. Governor Richard Lamm appointed Rachel to take over the vacant position, making her the first African-American to serve on the University of Colorado Board of Regents.
Elvin R. Caldwell
Elvin R. Caldwell became the first African-American to serve on a city council, not just in Colorado, but west of the Mississippi River in 1955. A product of the Colorado public education system, Caldwell grew up in Five Points when it was predominately black neighborhood. After graduating from Eastside High School in 1937 he attended both the University of Colorado and the University of Denver. In 1950 he was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives and then two years after served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. In 1955, when he was elected to the Denver City Council, Caldwell became the first African American to serve on a city council seat. He served on the council for seven terms. Caldwell fought and won against institutionalized discrimination in employment in Denver. Until the 1970s, nonwhites were barred from serving as judges or being promoted within the police force and could only serve in the one African American fire station. Under Caldwell’s leadership, Denver implemented its first Fair Employment Practices Act. In 1980 Caldwell received his last political appointment when Denver mayor William H. McNichols Jr. named him Manager of Safety, making Caldwell the first black member of a Denver mayoral cabinet.
Peter C. Groff
Peter C. Groff was the first African-American Colorado State Senate President, served under President Barak Obama in the US Dept. of Education, and assisted in the founding of the Center for African-American Policy at the University of Denver. Groff has held senior level positions at all three levels of government and has more than 25 years of public service. Groff served as the 47th President of the Colorado State Senate and was the first African-American in Colorado to be elected to this position, and the third African-American in the nation’s history to hold the gavel as State Senate President. Groff served in the Colorado General Assembly for nearly ten years and passed visionary legislation in the areas of education, criminal justice and health care. Prior to Groff’s service in the legislature and even during his tenure, he directed the policy center at the University of Denver. Before beginning his consulting firm, Groff served as the first ever Visiting Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Prior to his time at Johns Hopkins, he was appointed the Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education during the first term of President Obama.