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21 May 2014

Before Brown v. Board of Education There Was Méndez v. Westminster



Category: Blog

In keeping with the subject of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, May 17, 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the issuance of the decision on Brown v. Board of Education.  Brown is a landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that, contrary to the legal doctrine of separate but equal, “separate education facilities are inherently unequal” and ended segregation in the United States.  

While most people educated in the United States are familiar with Brown, I would like to bring your attention to more arcane cases, with arguably equal significance.

As I wrote about earlier in the blog, the case Hernández v. Texas was decided just two weeks prior to Brown; but there is another little-known case that was instrumental for the American civil rights movement:  Méndez v. Westminster.  While many scholars of educational desegregation assure us that the beginning of the end of the “separate but equal” doctrine was set underway with Brown v. Board of Education.  It could be argued that the beginning of that end may actually date back seven years prior,  Méndez v. Westminster, which ended the almost 100 years of segregation that had remained a practice since the end of the U.S.-Mexico War of 1848 and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  The end of the U.S.-Mexico War gave rise to “anti-immigrant sentiments [that] resulted in increased measures to segregate Mexican-Americans from so-called ‘white’ public institutions such as swimming pools, parks, schools, and eating establishments.”

Méndez v. Westminster School District of Orange County was a federal court case that challenged racial segregation in the education system of Orange County, California.  Five Mexican-American fathers—Thomas Estrada, William Guzmán, Gonzalo Méndez, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramírez—set out to challenge the practice of school segregation in theU.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  Their claim was that their children and some 5,000 others of Mexican ancestry, had fallen victim to unconstitutional discriminatory practices by being forced to attend separate schools that had been designated “schools for Mexicans” in the school districts of El Modena, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and Westminster—all of which were in Orange County.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican-American students, by relegating them to “Mexican Schools,” was unconstitutional.

To give readers a snapshot of the times, an article that appears in the National Archives’ Teachers’ Resources, “Education Resources on School Desegregation:  School Desegregation and Civil Rights Stories:  Orange County, California,” highlights the disparagingly hostile language that was used by superintendents of Orange County to rationalize their motives for enforcing segregation practices:  “‘Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability, and in their economic outlook.’ He [the superintendent] further stated that their lack of English prevented them from learning Mother Goose rhymes and that they had hygiene deficiencies, like lice, impetigo, tuberculosis, and generally dirty hands, neck, face and ears. These he [the superintendent] stated warranted separation.”  To refute these claims, David Marcus, the attorney forMéndez brought forth experts in social science to address these essentialist (and erroneous) perspectives of Mexicans.  To counter the argument of the Mexican-American children’s inability to speak English, he called a Hispanic young lady named Carol Torres to take the stand.  This was to illustrate that Mexican-American students were certainly capable of speaking English.  Mrs. Méndez also testified and delivered, in English, one resounding line that those of us who are Americans of Hispanic ancestry or provenance may understand more intimately: “We always tell our children they are Americans.”

After nearly a year, Senior Judge Paul John McCormick for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, ruled that there were no legal grounds for the segregation of Mexican children and that these actions were a “clear denial of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.” The previously-mentioned school districts appealed the ruling to theU.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed Judge McCormick’s ruling. “Two months later, California’s Governor Earl Warren signed a bill ending school segregation in California, making it the first state to official desegregate its public schools.”  The name Earl Warren should ring a bell, as he would later become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, at the time that the Court heard the Brown v. Board of Education case. Perhaps the old adage “history does not occur in a vacuum” is true. Earl Warren’s role in seeing to the passing  of legislation (the Anderson bill) in his state–after understanding the arguments brought before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals–certainly paved the way for the favorable outcome of Brown v. Board of Education.

Because the subject of segregation in terms of Hispanic education is little known, I would like to leave you with some food for thought.  The Shades of Orange Photo Collection, which is the product of a collaboration spearheaded by Orange Public Library in conjunction with the Orange Barrio Historical Society, Old Towne Preservation Association,Chapman University, EDAW Inc., and City of Orange Community Development Department, among others, provides a great snapshot of this moment in history.  The tab titled “Neighborhood Activities” includes photos of schools during segregation and integration.  I encourage you to take a look at these pictures:  1925 and 1935.  Notice that the Sycamore School in the 1925 photo was also know as “The Barn” or “Mexican School.”  The collection description states that “Segregation from Anglo residents of Orange was a part of school life for the Mexican-American children.  Children in Cypress Barrio attended the Lemon Street School, but there were two buildings one for the Anglo and another for the Mexican.  In 1946, schools were desegregated and all neighborhood children in the Cypress Barrio attended the newly-integrated Killefer School.”

Source: Library of Congress Blog  |   Author: Franciso Macías

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