Orphaned young, Ruth Flowers spent part of her childhood in small gold mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado, trying to catch burros to ride and having great mountain adventures. “It was not only wild, it was open,” she recalled. “You could go wherever you chose to go and everything was only 5 cents each.” In 1917, when she was in 9th grade, she moved with her sister to Boulder, perhaps in search of better schooling. Because they were not residents of Boulder, it cost $75 each to attend Boulder High, plus books. Only 14 and 15 years old, the sisters found jobs. Three months later, their grandmother joined them.
Unlike Cripple Creek, Boulder was not “open”, because Ruth and her family were African-American. They were pressured to live in an area known as the Little Rectangle, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Ruth felt she got a good education at Boulder High and at the University of Colorado, Boulder, but most things outside of the classroom were “closed” to Black students. The businesses on the Hill were closed. The dormitories at the university were closed. After studying for a Master’s in Education at CU, Ruth wasn’t allowed even to get her required student teaching semester at her alma mater, Boulder High School, because it, too, was “closed” to her.
Ruth persevered. She went on to earn an LL.B. degree and practice law for several years. Then she earned her Ph.D., and taught for over 35 years, including at Fairview High School. She gave a lecture at Boulder High School in 1972 that looks at 40 years of racial history of Boulder, from 1932 to 1972, to which she was witness. She recounts how many talented Black people – and their families – left Boulder for Denver and beyond because they needed jobs. Ruth speaks with some bitterness about how few jobs there were for Black people in Boulder until the 1970s, when IBM and the federal labs changed the hiring picture. Most of all, she remembers how her family was treated: “You couldn’t even get a doctor to come to you. My grandma almost died and I called every doctor in town and I never got a doctor at all…. Now you could get it from Denver, but Boulder, no. It was very closed; it was really a closed society.”
It’s Black History Month, as good a time as any to ask ourselves why. Why were Cripple Creek and Denver open in ways Boulder wasn’t? Why did Boulder make it so hard for Black families – whose children had been educated at its good schools – to stay? The answer is complicated, and we will explore it in our forthcoming documentary film, “This is [Not] Who We Are”, www.thisisnotwhowearefilm.com Boulder didn’t have to take the path it took; it chose it. It doesn’t have to continue to be the way it is, a city where there’s more talk of diversity, equity, and inclusion than practice of them. For those of us who live in Boulder, do we have the will to change patterns of discrimination and “closedness” that started long ago? If so, how do we go about it? We welcome your thoughts.
(If you’d like to know more about Dr. Flowers, Boulder’s wonderful Carnegie Library for Local History has an audio file and transcript of her lecture.)