We start today by marking the passing of a Denver civil rights leader, Ruth Cousins Denny. Denny was a schoolteacher who was tireless in her efforts to end segregation. Denny spoke with Colorado Matters on a couple of occasions. One time, she recalled her early life in Missouri, where she was born in 1920.
Ruth Denny: I am the granddaughter of a slave. And I remember when I was about 12 years old my grandmother died, but as I look back now, I remember her saying to her children, "expect nothing, and then you will never be disappointed." And that's a very sad commentary that a family has to live through for years and years.
Not long after she turned 30, Denny moved to Denver. This was the early 1950s. At that time, there were many places that, as a black woman, she could not go:
Denny: One of the places was the movie theater; we had to go upstairs and sit in the balcony. In those days it was called the peanut gallery. And that is where we had to go. I walked in, and my friend said to me, no, we don’t sit down here, we sit upstairs. And that was my first experience with segregation in Denver. I hoping and feeling i was moving to a better place than where I had come from. I thought i was going to see a little bit of heaven here in Denver, but it wasn’t quite the heaven that I thought it was going to be.
So Denny set out to change things. She helped found the Denver Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Nationally, CORE played a central role in the civil rights movement. In Denver, Denny and her fellow activists launched a series of campaigns against segregation in schools, neighborhoods and businesses. One target was Denver Dry Goods, a downtown department store. It had no black employees, except janitors. CORE members first tried to persuade the owners to hire black clerks, but when negotiations failed, they picketed outside the store. Ruth Denny, along with friend Helen Wolcott, recall how long that protest lasted.
Denny: Five weeks!
Helen Wolcott: But think, five weeks and getting your goal. Those were such exciting days! People cut up their credit cards, people turned around and went to shop across the street. People asked if they could join the picket lines.
And Denver Dry Goods, and other stores along 16th street, changed their hiring practices. Fast forward to 2008, when we first interviewed Ruth Denny. Barack Obama had won the Democratic nomination for President. I asked her if she had ever imagined the day a black person would be so close to becoming president.
Denny: I would never have dreamed of it anyway, in any kind of way, it’s just shocking, but a good shock. Not in my lifetime at all. It’s just in the last I would say that I begin to feel that some things that have not happened to us, will begin to happen, because I have had very negative feelings about it, but now I do see it, and have a glimmer of hope.
The last time we spoke to Ruth Denny was on November 5th, 2008. That was the day after Obama won the election. Denny told us she didn’t sleep a wink the night before. Ruth Denny died Tuesday, at the age of 91. Her memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday in Denver.