A Century of Banned Marriages

A black man and white woman living together in Denver as a married couple, were arrested in 1939 and again in 1941 for the same offense. Their crime, in the eyes of Colorado lawmakers, was simply being together. 


The court case, filed March 9, 1942, stated that for their first arrest in February 1939, “both being then married (not to each other) and while so living together, they were arrested, tried and convicted of vagrancy.” 

After their first arrest, the couple was released, and the court noted they “resumed that relationship.” Court and arrest documents state that the March 20, 1941, arrest was due to the fact that, “the defendants, a colored man and a white woman, were arrested while living together as though married, hence the charge.” Their only contention to the March arrest was that they had entered into a common-law marriage that year after divorcing their previous partners. 

The man, only identified as Jackson, said in defense of their common-law status that, “I asked her if she would be my wife, she said `Yes.’ She asked me if I would be her husband, I said `Yes.’” The prosecution relied heavily on a territorial statute from 1864 that specified that all marriages between black and white persons were “absolutely void.” Initially the vagrancy charges were easily proven without relying on the outdated statute, as the two had not officially divorced their former partners and were living together, which was then a violation of statutes regarding the rights of married people.

The couple brought forward their argument that the statute precluding a common law marriage was discriminatory, but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the statute was not unconstitutional because it applied to both races and not just one. The judgment was affirmed on these grounds and a rehearing was denied but the topic of interracial marriage wouldn’t die with this case. The Jackson v. Denver ruling was referenced in numerous other cases citing segregation, interracial marriage and discrimination both in and outside of Colorado.

More than a decade later, House Bill 039 passed on March 14, 1957, which repealed the ban in full. 

Another bill passed that session that brought public accommodations and private employers under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission, now the Colorado Division of Civil Rights. 

– Jess Brovsky-Eaker

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