Most of us are familiar with the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case from 1954. It was a landmark decision in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. This decision led to the integration of schools across the nation but made the most impact in the South where there were segregated schools for African American students and for white students. However, there was a previous court case that paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Education.
Have you ever heard of the Mendez vs. Westminster court case? In the 1940s more than 80 percent of Mexican American students in California attended “Mexican” schools even though no California law required such a separation. Unlike the segregation of African Americans in the South because of “Jim Crow” laws, there was no such law in California (or in other western states).
If you are not familiar with the term “Jim Crow” laws the History.com website describes them:
Jim Crow laws were a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. Named after a Black minstrel show character, the laws—which existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968—were meant to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education, or other opportunities. Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence, and death.
While there were “Jim Crow” laws in the South, there were unofficial “Juan Crow” laws in many California communities and in other western states that resulted in de facto segregation of Mexicans. For example, there were signs in restaurants that stated, “No Dogs or Mexicans.” Public swimming pools had “Mexican Mondays” after which the pool was drained and cleaned before Anglo residents use the pool. Monday was the only day Mexicans could swim. Mexican Americans were relegated to the balcony in movie theaters.
Figure 1. An example of “Juan Crow” policies
These “Juan Crow” type of policies were prevalent in the school systems of California and in some other states. In this Friday Footnote, we will learn about the Mendez vs. Westminster case that put an end to segregated schools for Mexicans. This is the fourth in a series of Footnotes recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month. A variety of resources were used in preparing this Footnote but I relied heavily on the Federal Bar Association blog cited in the reference section.
Background Information: The Mendez vs. Westminster Court Case
When the Mendez family moved from Santa Ana, CA to Westminster, CA in 1943, it was expected by the family that seven-year-old Sylvia would attend the Westminster 17th Street Elementary School with manicured lawns and a wonderful playground. But, because she was a “Mendez,” she could not, as a matter of district policy, enroll at 17th Street Elementary and would instead have to attend Hoover Elementary, a two-room ramshackle building where all of the children were Mexican or of “Latin descent.”
Figure 2. Sylvia Mendez
Sylvia’s parents were irate. They lived within the boundaries of the Westminster School and saw no reason why Sylvia could not go to school there. They fought hard to get Sylvia admitted to Westminster but were not successful.
Finally, the Mendezes contacted an attorney named David C. Marcus who had recently sued the city of San Bernardino to overturn a law barring Mexican-Americans from using the city’s only park and swimming pool. Marcus, a Jewish American married to a Mexican woman and the father of two Mexican-American girls, agreed to represent the Mendezes.
During the 1940s Mexicans were considered to be unclean and inferior to whites. Legal scholar Phillippa Strum wrote in her book (2010) Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights that claims of Mexican inferiority were based on racist pseudoscience that claimed Mexicans had “different mental characteristics” and had an aptitude for manual labor but not intellectual pursuits. However, these supposed “characteristics” did not prevent Mexican-Americans from fighting in World War II.
In March of 1945, Marcus filed the petition on behalf of the Mendezes and four other Mexican-American families. Westminster and three other Orange County school districts were named in the filing. Marcus realized that claims of racial discrimination were likely to fail given the 1893 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that “separate but equal“ was legal. Instead, Marcus argued the children received disparate treatment based on the children’s “Mexican or Latin descent” and the schools and education received was not equal.
The school districts denied the claim. Although most Mexican- American schoolchildren were segregated, they argued, separation was necessary and “desirable” for the “efficient instruction of pupils who are familiar with the English language.” Language capability was the issue, they said, not race or ethnicity.
The bench trial (no jury, just a judge) lasted two weeks. On the first day of the trial, Marcus called Garden Grove School Superintendent Kent (one of the school districts in the suit) to testify. Four years earlier, Kent had written a master’s thesis titled “Segregation of Mexican School Children in Southern California,” in which he argued that Mexicans were an “alien race that should be segregated socially.” From that point on the trial went downhill for the school districts.
Superintendent Kent admitted that in Garden Grove, Mexican children were placed in Mexican schools “[r]egardless of their ability to speak the English language.” Other district officials helped bury the defense case. A Santa Ana official testified that the district determined which children were to attend Mexican schools based on the children’s surnames rather than language ability. Another acknowledged that it was the policy in his district to separate Mexican-American school children from the rest and that no language tests were administered.
Parents testified as to their racist and discriminatory experiences with the school districts. Their testimony was their English-speaking children would not be admitted to white schools because Mexicans were “dirty”; that if their children were of Spanish, not Mexican, ancestry, they might be admitted. One of the Mendez’s in-laws who was of Mexican heritage was welcome to attend 17th Street Elementary because their last name was Vidaurri which was considered to be Spanish, not Mexican.
Many parents spoke of the degradation and constant humiliation their children suffered due to their treatment in Mexican schools. Expert witnesses testified as to the damaging effects of segregation on the children. The clincher was when Mexican children took the stand and proved they could speak English and had the same capacity for learning as their white counterparts.
On Feb. 18, 1946, Judge Paul McCormick issued his ruling and found that the school districts in fact discriminated against Mexican-Americans on the basis of their lineage in violation of the students’ constitutional rights and enjoined the school districts from segregating children going forward.
Figure 3. From the Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1946
The school districts appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1947 the court affirmed the district court’s ruling on the grounds that segregation of Mexican-American children specifically was against California law and thus violated the Fourteenth Amendment. There was no further appeal.
Shortly after the decision, the California legislature ended all forms of legal segregation in California schools (California law had allowed for segregated schools for Native Americans and for Asian-Americans).
Not Just in California
Mexican children in other states also experienced segregated schools. The Blackwell School operated in Marfa, Texas, as a segregated school for children of Mexican descent from 1909 until Marfa schools were integrated in 1965. In July of 2021 legislation was introduced in the U. S. House of Representatives and the Senate to designate the Blackwell School a National Historic Site. [Curator’s Note” Marfa was the location for the 1956 movie Giant which starred James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. The “it’s complicated” relationship between Mexicans and Anglos is evident in the movie.]
Figure 4. The Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas
Starting in 1912, Anglo students attended the Eighth Street School while Mexican students attended the Tenth Street School in Tempe, Arizona. In 1927, the town of Gilbert, Arizona built a separate school for Mexican students on the grounds of the regular elementary school. The district maintained the school until 1947. Mexican American students in Colorado, Arizona, Texas, and in other neighboring states were often placed in segregated schools (Powers, 2008).
On January 19, 1948, Sylvia and her siblings were finally allowed to attend the 17th Street Elementary School in Westminster. Later Sylvia graduated with an associate’s degree in nursing from Orange Coast Community College. She then earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a public health certificate from California State University at Los Angeles. She subsequently worked at the Southern California Medical Center for more than 30 years as Assistant Nursing Director of the Pediatric Pavilion. When Sylvia was told to attend the Hoover Elementary School the expectation was that she would become a good maid. Since her retirement, she has dedicated her time to educating students about the Mendez case and encouraging young people to stay in school.
Figure 5. Sylvia Mendez receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Figure 6. U.S. Postage Stamp issued in 2007. If you collect stamps, you might want this one.
During a FFA meeting, the president asks the members “Why we are here?” The members rise in unison and the first three words they state are “To practice brotherhood…” Have you really thought about what that phrase means? Truly, what does it mean to practice “brotherhood”? Do we really mean it?
According to the Oxford Dictionary brotherhood is “the feeling of kinship with and closeness to a group of people or all people.” In this Footnote, we have learned that in the past brotherhood was not practiced by “all people.” The courts had to intervene as demonstrated in Mendez vs. Westminster.
A question you might want to ask yourself and your students is “Do we really practice brotherhood in our chapter?” Our program should be welcoming to all students regardless of ethnicity. We can make it happen. We don’t need a court case to make us.
Federal Bar Association (2021). Mendez v. Westminster: The Mexican-American Fight for School Integration and Social Equality Pre-Brown v. Board of Education. Blog post.
Jeanne M. Powers (2008). Forgotten History: Mexican American School Segregation in Arizona from 1900–1951, Equity & Excellence in Education, 41:4, 467-481, DOI: 10.1080/10665680802400253
Roos, Dave (2019). The Mendez Family Fought School Segregation 8 Years Before Brown v. Board of Ed. https://www.history.com/news/mendez-school-segregation-mexican-american
Strum, Phillippa (2010). Mendez v. Westminster. University of Kansas Press.