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Remembering Lylaus Keyes, a Denver civil rights leader

Keyes, a civil rights leader who spent years fighting for equality in Denver’s public education system, passed away on October 1. She was 97.
Lylaus Keyes.jpg
Posted at 7:11 AM, Oct 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-11 09:11:06-04

DENVER — Lylaus Keyes, a civil rights leader who spent years fighting for equality in Denver’s public education system, passed away on October 1. She was 97.

The landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 deemed state-sanctioned racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The ruling impacted de jure segregation, or segregation outlined in a law. Years later, a case brought by eight Denver Public Schools families turned the focus to de facto segregation, or segregation in practice.

In the 1960s, the DPS Board of Education manipulated school boundaries so Park Hill Elementary School would consist of predominantly white students, according to History Colorado. Keyes and her husband, Wilfred C. Keyes, along with seven other residents of Denver's Park Hill neighborhood, sued the school board in 1969, claiming the move violated their children's constitutional rights.

“There was a lot of stuff going on around Denver at that time. The school buses got bombed. And they had several houses in Park Hill area… our house got bombed, as well,” said Christi Romero, Lylaus Keyes’ daughter. “The next morning when the detectives came out to look around and see things, by that time, my parents didn't even remember him (the suspect) being there. I did, so I was able to identify him… my mom was very scared and worried for us.”

But Romero said her mom never waivered from the civil rights fight and kept the family strong.

“She was very energetic, very strong, very strong person — strong willed. Friendly, lovable,” Romero said.

Federal District Judge William Doyle ruled in favor of the families, saying the changes violated the equal protection clause outlined in the 14th Amendment. That decision was appealed, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Doyle's ruling.

Eventually, Keyes v. School District No. 1 made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The defense argued that though one part of the district was guilty of segregation, it did not mean that the entire system was segregated.

In 1973, the Supreme Court voted 7-1 in favor of the families and determined the segregation at Park Hill schools indeed noted segregation within the entire district. What followed was two decades of busing students to integrate all DPS schools. In 1995, a federal judge determined DPS had eliminated segregation to the extent possible, and the busing ended.

“Mrs. Keyes is a community treasure. I have said that so many times. She was small in stature, but a gigantic person in terms of educational equity. And she didn't boast. You would not see her putting on airs or talking about everything that has happened in the last 60 years. But when you started to ask her, you saw how committed she was. You saw the motivation she had,” said Dr. Darlene Sampson, an education consultant and Keyes family friend. "She was still very interested in terms of what was happening in the educational arena. She did say to me, 'Dr. Sampson, I'm really concerned about how hard my husband and I worked.' It was more than a notion for her and Dr. Wilfred Keyes to push the educational equity. But they wanted to make sure that all kids had the right to the same things in all areas of the city."

Sampson said Keyes was loved by many members of the community.

“Her church family loved her, Shorter AME Church. She was loved by the people that did her hair. She's loved by the people who she contacted regarding educational equity,” Sampson said. “The quietest people, the most common people, the people with the most energy and commitment can also be the loudest in terms of educational equity. And they weren't loud, but they had this quiet reserve, and it was powerful. So I want people to understand that their legacy is enduring... despite the fact that Denver Public Schools is still struggling around these issues."

Since that 1973 Supreme Court case, schools in Denver, including Stedman Elementary in Park Hill, have experienced a lot of change. Principal Michael Atkins said Stedman was once a majority Black school with few resources and secondhand books. Now, it’s one of the most diverse schools in the district.

“We're about 36% white. We're about 33% Black. We have a small percentage of mixed race. And the rest is LatinX/Hispanic,” Atkins said. “The redlining that was happening in the community and the push into making all Black communities that were lower socioeconomic within the Park Hill boundaries was the very key to the Keyes case in general… You talk about an equity force, someone who has paved the way that allows us to show up and do the current work and have the current conversations that we have in Denver. A lot of people don't know that that case was the foundation of conversations that weren't happening outside the South. So we think the world of the Keyes family.”

A celebration of life ceremony will be held for Lylaus Keyes on Thursday, October 19 at 1 p.m. at Shorter AME Church.