Beginning in the 1920s, immigration to Denver underwent several significant changes owing to war, economic depression, and evolving civil rights legislation and related social tensions. Movements of people due to World War II, Japanese internment, changing agricultural landscapes, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s–60s, and Denver’s urban renewal campaign starting in the 1960s contributed to a revolution in Denver’s diversity and group relations. Denver’s ethnic diversity grew with new immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Meanwhile, existing residents built up communities and fought to assert their rights as Denverites and American citizens.
As before, wealthier immigrants from the eastern United States and Europe typically experienced the highest rate of acceptance in Denver as they became prominent business owners and took up seats in local government. Working-class immigrants—especially those from Latin America, Africa, and Asia—often faced discrimination in jobs and housing, even after civil rights legislation made it illegal.
A New Era
By the 1920s, the city of Denver was home to residents from numerous religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. English, German, Irish, Swedish, Italian, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and Russian immigrants were just some of the groups that had already moved to the city.
The start of the 1920s marked an important shift away from Denver’s early immigration patterns that had begun in the 1850s. After the end of World War I and the Red Scare—a nationwide panic over Communism—the United States passed immigration restrictions that imposed new national origins quotas and effectively ended immigration from Asia. This new nativism was reflected in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which gained a large following in Denver. Some members of the Klan even gained powerful government positions and tried to force Blacks, Jews, and Catholics out of the city.
The end of the war also prompted Latinx servicemen to move their families from rural centers to Denver, especially the Auraria neighborhood. Instead of Europeans and Asians, Latinxs would become the most populous immigrant group in Denver during the twentieth century.
Auraria: Heart of Latinx Culture
The Latinxs who moved to Auraria starting in the 1920s arrived largely via the sugar beet industry, which had started in Colorado around 1900 and soon joined ranching and mining as one of the most prominent industries in the state. The growth of the sugar beet industry demanded a new labor force to work beet fields and sugar factories. American Indian and Mexican laborers from southern Colorado, northern New Mexico, and Mexico became the preferred labor group for sugar beet farmers because they accepted lower wages than whites and were more easily available than Chinese, who had been banned from immigrating in 1882. Companies such as Great Western Sugar also drew laborers from other marginalized groups in Colorado, including Japanese, Tejano (Texans of Mexican descent), and German Russian.
During the 1920s, many Latinx farmers and World War I veterans began to move their families to Auraria, shifting the neighborhood from Central and Eastern European to Latinx. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the Latinx residents of Auraria created a rich culture. St. Cajetan’s Catholic Church, at the corner of Lawrence and Ninth Streets, was built in 1926 and represented the heart of Auraria.
By the early 1940s, however, city officials became concerned about the concentration of Latinxs in the neighborhood, as they believed overpopulation and crowding were negatively affecting the lives of residents. This was a controversial issue, given that many Auraria residents liked their neighborhood. They had lived there for years, and despite its lack of resources, Auraria was rich in kinship, tradition, and community. Despite official concerns, the neighborhood continued to thrive until 1965, when it was inundated after the South Platte River flooded.
The flood spurred the city to move ahead with a long-planned urban-renewal and flood-mitigation project that would transform Auraria into a tri-institutional college campus. With business in the city growing and a large generation of baby boomers nearing college age, the city saw the need for more higher education opportunities in the Denver metro area. After first banning the construction of new residential housing in Auraria in 1956, city officials argued in the wake of the 1965 flood that three-fourths of the neighborhood was “damaged beyond repair,” when in fact less than half of the area had been affected.
Denver proposed a bond to buy Auraria land and relocate the people who lived there. In response, angry residents established the Auraria Residents’ Organization to fight the initiative. Their efforts failed as powerful institutions lined up to support the measure. Denver archbishop James Casey, for example, urged Catholic voters to approve the bond. Some displaced residents believed the city paid off the church for its support. One granddaughter of a displaced resident claimed, “No one thinks they have a price. But everyone does. Even the church.” Whether or not the allegations were true, the bond passed with 52 percent of the vote.
The city went ahead with the project. Residents were forced to leave, and by 1972 relocations were complete. Many moved just south to La Alma–Lincoln Park, which had shifted from working-class European immigrants to Latinx residents in the previous two generations. After the Auraria campus was built, more tensions erupted when Chicano activists claimed that city officials had failed to deliver on promised scholarships to the children of displaced residents and a Hispanic cultural center on campus. Officials claimed they never found documents confirming such promises were made, but in the 1990s the campus began offering Displaced Aurarian Scholarships, which provide displaced residents and their children and grandchildren with eight semesters of tuition and funding at any of the campus’s three schools.
The War Effort and Japanese Internment
Denverites saw the benefits of war industry before, during, and after World War II. Fitzsimons Army Hospital, which had treated soldiers during World War I, was refurbished and expanded, while Lowry Air Force Base (1938) and Buckley Field (1942) opened east of town. Just west of Denver, construction on the giant Denver Ordnance Plant in Lakewood started in 1941. These new army bases and hospitals brought roughly four million servicemen and women to Denver during the war. Employment in war industries reached as high as 19,500 in 1943. After the war, many of these soldiers and workers relocated permanently to the Denver area, especially as federal agencies mushroomed in size. The Denver Federal Center, for example, replaced the ordnance plant, eventually adding thousands of new office jobs.
While the war brought army and government personnel to Denver, it also caused an increase in the city’s Japanese population. In early 1942, when Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes on the West Coast, many of them moved to inland states such as Colorado. Denver’s Japanese American population, clustered near the Tri-State Buddhist Temple on Lawrence Street, grew from 324 people in 1940 to 2,310 in 1944.
Other Japanese Americans were forced into detention camps because of fears that they would try to sabotage American war efforts. Ten concentration camps were built to incarcerate them, with one—Camp Amache, also known as the Granada War Relocation Center—in Colorado. Located near Granada in the southwest corner of Colorado, Camp Amache was built starting in June 1942. Many of the initial 212 detainees to arrive at the camp first had to help finish building it; in fact, the camp was still under construction when its population peaked at 7,567 people in October 1942.
When Camp Amache detainees were gradually released toward the end of the war, many moved to Denver owing in part to sympathetic Governor Ralph Carr (1939–43), who believed that putting US citizens in concentration camps based on their race violated the Constitution. Hundreds of former Amache prisoners went to work on sugar beet and other farms in Denver, Adams, Jefferson, and Arapahoe Counties, where they were welcome as agriculture was on the rise after the war, resulting in a huge demand for agricultural laborers. Although Governor Carr’s beliefs were welcoming to Japanese Americans, not all white Americans shared his sentiment, causing continued racial discrimination toward Denver’s Japanese population for years to come.
Most Japanese Americans in Denver, even those who had been US soldiers during World War II, did not enjoy equal rights and protections until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, when Americans became somewhat more aware of the prejudices facing all ethnic minorities, not only Blacks. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 allowed Asian immigrants to become naturalized US citizens, and the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 lifted discriminatory immigration quotas, opening US borders to significant numbers of new Asian immigrants for the first time in nearly half a century. Over the next fifty years, Asian immigrants were granted large numbers of visas because many of them had acquired advanced educations and technical expertise. This significantly increased Denver’s Asian American population, which more than doubled its share of the city from 1.4 percent in 1970 to 3.4 percent in 2010.
Today, Sakura Square in downtown Denver functions as a sort of Japanese cultural center, home to several Japanese businesses as well as the Tri-State Buddhist Temple. Developed as a center for Japanese culture during the 1970s, the square has become home to Denver’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which includes celebrations of traditional Japanese practices such as the Japanese tea ceremony and ikebana flower arranging.
Black Denverites and the Five Points Neighborhood
During the 1910s and 1920s, a movement known as the Great Migration brought an influx of Black residents from the southern states to Denver. By 1920 about 2.4 percent of Denver’s population was Black, a proportion still much lower than in cities such as New York or Chicago (as well as many southern cities). Compared to many other cities, African Americans in Denver were moderately prosperous and well educated. Still, many of Denver’s Black residents worked as common laborers and were subject to racial prejudice, especially when the Ku Klux Klan emerged as a dominant force in the 1920s.
Many Black Denverites moved into the Five Points neighborhood, located near the five-way intersection of Washington Street, Welton Street, East Twenty-Sixth Avenue, and Twenty-Seventh Street. While Five Points had initially been home to European immigrants, a housing boom in the 1920s allowed whites to move to newer, higher-class neighborhoods. Discrimination and restrictive covenants forced Blacks to remain in older, lower-quality housing in Five Points. By 1929 more than 75 percent of the city’s Black residents lived in Five Points. The area’s population skyrocketed during and after World War II, with the neighborhood’s Black population almost doubling to 13,500 in 1950.
During the 1950s, Five Points became known as the “Harlem of the West,” home to several well-known jazz clubs such as the Casino Cabaret and Rossonian Lounge. But the neighborhood experienced significant changes in the next few decades. Denver’s Fair Housing Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it possible for African Americans and other groups to move to better housing in neighborhoods where segregation had previously barred them. As a result, the population of Five Points decreased by half between 1950 and 1970. As Black Denverites moved elsewhere, Latinx people soon made up 40 percent of the population in Five Points. Many businesses that had been owned by Blacks (including several popular jazz clubs) shut down, and older buildings were demolished in the name of urban renewal.
North and East African Immigrants
As American immigration policy changed in the second half of the twentieth century, Denver became home to several thousand refugees from other countries, most notably countries in North and East Africa and the Middle East. In addition to abolishing discriminatory national-origins quotas, the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 established a new policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled laborers from other countries. Immigration of refugees further increased when President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which promised to provide effective resettlement of refugees and assistance in helping them to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Colorado has been the destination of choice for many of these refugees. The US Office of Refugee Resettlement reported that more than 9,500 African refugees and asylum seekers settled in Colorado between 1980 and 2014. The majority of these immigrants came from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Iran, and Syria, with smaller numbers from Liberia, Eritrea, and other countries. In fact, while in 2014 Mexico remained the most common country of origin for immigrants in Colorado, Ethiopia placed second.
Many Colorado-bound refugees settled in Denver, while some moved to smaller cities such as Fort Collins and Fort Morgan. A variety of local agencies mobilized to help immigrants learn English, start businesses, and obtain counseling and legal services, including the Catholic Charity Center, the Global Refugee Center in Greeley, and the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network in Westminster. African immigrants found economic success, owning more than 300 businesses in Denver and employing thousands of people in the city. This economic success has resulted in greater involvement of first- and second-generation African immigrants in Colorado politics. In 2018, for example, Joe Neguse, the son of Eritrean parents, won election to the US House of Representatives from Colorado’s Second Congressional District.
Despite their general success, some North and East African immigrants have faced discrimination, particularly those who are Muslim. Muslim meatpacking workers in northern Colorado—mostly Somali immigrants—have been fired on multiple occasions for taking prayer breaks, while in 2019 a Capitol Hill landlord was forced to pay $675,000 for refusing to rent to a Muslim family, claiming the family was not American because of its religion.
“Natives” and “Transplants”
In addition to people from other countries, Denver saw an increase in immigrants coming from other parts of the United States in the 2010s. This internal migration has been attributed to Colorado’s tourism industry, the state’s relatively low unemployment rate, and the legalization of marijuana in 2012. The city’s population mushroomed by more than 100,000 people, with more than 60 percent of that growth attributable to newcomers. These immigrants came not only from other states, but also from economically struggling rural areas of Colorado, suggesting that Denver’s economy has been a main draw for many people in recent years.
Newcomers to Colorado are commonly referred to as “transplants,” while those born in the state—apparently oblivious to the existence of American Indians and their own immigrant past—sometimes call themselves “natives.” Many of the so-called transplants moving into Denver are young, white, middle-class professionals, a large number of whom do not have children. As more of these transplants moved to Denver, skyrocketing housing prices, worsening traffic, and greater competition for jobs resulted in some tensions between newcomers and the so-called natives who call Denver home. While many residents have embraced or accepted the city’s growth, some have chosen to relocate.
From 1920 to the present, Denver has become home to new groups of immigrants from all over the country and the world. Today, Denver continues to celebrate its rich cultural diversity with events such as the Cherry Blossom Festival, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, the Denver Greek Festival, the Five Points Jazz Festival, and others. Many historic churches and religious centers such as St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, the Tri-State Buddhist Temple, and Temple Emanuel continue to offer services. Despite major changes, formerly ethnic neighborhoods such as Five Points and Auraria still pay homage to previous residents’ cultures and histories with areas such as the Ninth Street Historic Park and the Black American West Museum. Denver’s rich cultural heritage is also evident in an ongoing push for equal rights for all citizens, as was seen in the protests of June and July 2020.
Denver continues to welcome refugees from other countries as well as immigrants from other parts of the United States. While the COVID-19 pandemic caused a decline in tourism, Denver has still seen its population increase. The city is predicted to continue to grow and welcome newcomers for the foreseeable future, which will add to Denver’s rich diversity and inevitably create new demographic shifts, conflicts, and movement patterns within the city.