By Colleen O'Connor for The Denver Post | To some people, Emily Griffith is just a name on a school in downtown Denver: the Emily Griffith Technical College, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
But to others, she’s a visionary whose legacy speaks to one of the most critical issues of modern times.
“So many candidates are bashing immigrants now,” said Colorado historian Tom Noel. “Her approach was completely different. She wanted to take them in, teach them English and give them job skills.”
She succeeded despite a growing anti-immigration movement around the country during her era. Between 1900 and 1915, more than 15 million immigrants arrived in America, about the same number that had arrived over the previous four decades.
And World War I fueled a fear of German-Americans, stoked by President Woodrow Wilson’s 1915 annual message to Congress, when he warned that some immigrants were creatures of “passion, disloyalty and anarchy” who “must be crushed out.”
But Griffith believed in giving opportunity to the new Americans.
“Her message for us today is that immigrants should be educated and valued as citizens, not persecuted or sent back or put in these legal limbos that so many are in today,” Noel said.
Since Griffith opened her Opportunity School, more than 2 million have received an education there. Last year, students from 94 countries speaking 72 languages attended the school, which offers more than 500 courses and 40 career-training certificate programs.
Celebrations of the school’s centennial will be held throughout the year, kicking off with a party at History Colorado on Feb. 12 to honor Griffith, with scenes from her life woven into theatrical vignettes from the Curious Theatre Company.
“As a teacher in the West, she was seeing all the challenges that immigrants faced with language and poverty and the rough conditions,” said Emily Dendinger, the theater’s playwright in residence who wrote the material. “It wasn’t just the students who were ignorant but their parents as well. She was discovering what her purpose could be.”
As a writer, Dendinger was particularly intrigued by some of the mystery that shrouds Griffith’s life, from why she never married to who killed her. After she retired in 1933, she moved with her sister to a cabin near Denver, and they were killed in 1947.
“She was slain execution-style, shot in the back of the head while kneeling and left in her own blood,” said historian Debra Faulkner in her biography “Touching Tomorrow: The Emily Griffith Story.”
The murder remains unsolved.
Born shortly after the Civil War, in 1868, Griffith grew into a girl who helped carry the burdens of her family.
Her father, Andew, was an itinerant missionary who made little money, and her mother, Martha, suffered from poor health.
They moved their family of three children from Cincinnati to homestead in Nebraska when Emily was a teenager.
At 16, she got a job as a teacher in a sod schoolhouse on the prairie. Most homesteaders were immigrants, including Germans, Swedes, Bohemians and Norwegians.
“She had a one-room schoolhouse, and it was customary for teachers to board around,” Faulkner said.
She lived for two weeks at a time with the families of her students, where she saw that most adults struggled, unable to speak English and lacking basic education.
That experience sparked her idea of creating a place where people of all ages could learn the skills they needed to thrive in life — a dream that she carried to Denver when her family moved to Colorado in 1894.
She found work as a substitute teacher and completed studies for teacher certification that allowed her to get a job as a full-time teacher at Central School in Auraria, one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods.
Over time, she rose in the field of education, working as deputy state superintendent of schools in the newly constructed state Capitol and teaching in places where she was most needed, like the Twenty-fourth Street School in Five Points, where she saw the results of poverty — from hunger to crime — manifesting in her students’ families.
Believing education offered a way out, she also taught night classes for adults, including immigrants from Russia, Bulgaria, China, Japan and Finland.
She also started crusading for something that was revolutionary at the time: a free public school for people of all ages that would offer basic adult education, immigrant education and vocational training.
Traveling the state, talking to men’s clubs and women’s clubs, she made the economic case that education for people on the lowest rung of the social ladder eventually would lift the entire community.
By May 1916 the Denver school board gave approval, and the Emily Griffith Opportunity School opened four months later at 13th and Welton streets.
Griffith expected about 200 students, but more than 1,400 people showed up to enroll in the first week, including adults who wanted to finish eighth grade, immigrants intent upon passing citizenship tests and young people who wanted to apprentice in trades ranging from automotive mechanics to millinery, cooking and carpentry.
News of her Opportunity School spread around the world, and she received offers from the governments of Russia, Greece, Germany and England to visit their countries and help create similar schools — but she preferred to stay in Denver helping her students.
In 1946, in her retirement years, she attended a party in her honor at the Denver Kiwanis Club where guests included the mayor, bank presidents and attorneys.
As Faulkner writes in Griffith’s biography, people such as Frederick Emmerich of the U.S. Department of Immigration gave her high praise.
“Were I ever called upon to choose the one person of my acquaintance whom I considered as having rendered the most unselfish and uplifting service toward the welfare of her fellow man,” he said, “my decision would unhesitatingly be … Emily Griffith.”
Faulkner, who spent five years digging through archives to weave together the forgotten history of Griffith’s life, believes her legacy is selflessness.
“She was one of those rare people who truly lived for others, devoting herself to improving their lives.”
Emily Griffith 100th anniversary
- The documentary “Miss Opportunity: The Life and Times of Emily Griffith,” airs at 7 p.m. tonight on Rocky Mountain PBS’ Colorado Experience.
- “The Party of the Century,” honoring Emily Griffith, will be at History Colorado from 7-11 p.m. Feb. 12. Tickets are $100 each. To order, go to egfoundation.org/partyofthectury
- The multimedia exhibit “For All Who Wish to Learn” will be held on the fifth floor of the Denver Public Library from August through December.
- The Emily Griffith Foundation will convene the “Touching Tomorrow Symposium” on Nov. 11 and 12 to examine the impact of workforce education on the middle class and the American economy.