November 2, 2021

"These Children Do Speak English:" Language and the Fight Against School Segregation

While the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, memorializes a single Supreme Court case, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is currently advocating for legislation to tell the stories of all the included court cases that made up Brown v. Board. Researching lesser-known cases such as Briggs v. Elliott or Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County sparked questions about other cases in the fight for school desegregation. How did other communities suffer from and challenge segregation in their schools?

Brown v Board of Education Map

Map of the various schools that were involved in the cases which were eventually rolled up into the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.

I spent the summer as an intern for the National Trust focusing on research related to Brown v. Board of Education. As part of this work, I compiled a list of state and federal court cases regarding school desegregation for Latinx American, Native American, and Asian and Pacific Islander American populations. Totaling 35 cases across 12 states and spanning the years 1885 to 2006, the list shines light on important trends throughout legal history.

Hispanic and Latinx Americans faced unique challenges in their own battle for equality. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Mexican Americans were legally white by race, according to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican American War. However, according to legal scholar Arielle Gross, they were “treated by Anglos as a separate race” and suffered day-to-day discrimination. The legal classification of Mexican Americans as white made it difficult for them to claim that they were discriminated against because of race. Officials—such as those from the school districts in the following three cases—would simply argue that the white status of Mexican Americans made it impossible to discriminate against them.

Alamosa, Colorado

Alamosa, Colorado, is located in the San Luis Valley region that had been part of Mexico until the 1848 Mexican American War. Because of this, most of its Mexican American residents had long-standing connections to the land. Racial segregation was outlawed in Colorado in 1895; however, school officials still tried to segregate Mexican American students. In the early 1900s, the Alamosa Board of Education built what they called a "Mexican school"—the Willis School—and required all Mexican American children to attend it.

The Willis School was located further away from many students’ houses than their original schools. Some children, including Francisco Maestas’ son, crossed dangerous railroad tracks every day. Officials claimed they lacked language skills, but at least half of the students at the school spoke English. In 1913, Maestas, along with other parents, sued the school board in Maestas v. Shone, and eventually the judge decided in favor of the Mexican American families. However, the decision only allowed English-speaking Mexican Americans to attend closer schools. School boards were still allowed to segregate students based on language ability. The Willis School continued operating until at least the 1930s. Today, no trace of the building remains in Zapata Park.

According to historians Ruben Donato, Gonzalo Guzman, and Jarrod Hanson, this case stands out not only because of its location in the “Hispano homeland,” but also because the Mexican Americans involved rejected their legal white status.

A cropped view of a Sanborn Fire Map of Alamosa, Colorado.

photo by: Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Alamosa County, Colorado. Dated 1912. The Willis School is marked as the Mexican School on Ross Avenue.

Del Rio, Texas

Seventeen years later, another court case had a similar result. A large portion of Texas’ agriculture is supported by migrant workers who followed crop cycles annually. Their children often had to leave and join various classrooms outside of the regularly scheduled school year. In the town of Del Rio in southwestern Texas, the school district used this “disruption of the classroom” as one reason to segregate Mexican migrant children. Their white migrant peers, however, were not removed from the regular classrooms.

The school district also claimed that Mexican children had special language needs without testing them and attempted to build a separate school for all Mexican American children, but the district was sued in Del Rio ISD v. Salvatierra (1930) before this effort commenced. The Texas Court of Appeals eventually ruled that segregation based on nationality was unconstitutional. However, like in the Maestas decision, segregation based on language ability was permitted. As a result, schools could determine language ability however they wished so that they could continue to segregate Mexican children. Donato, Guzman, and Hanson point out that this was effectively a form of “intentionally, legally sanctioned segregation.”

Orange County, California

In 1948, one case finally succeeded. Soledad Vidaurri took both her children and those of her brother Gonzalo Mendez to register for school in California. Her children were admitted to 17th Street School for their French-sounding name, but their cousins were assigned to Hoover Elementary, designated for Hispanic children. When the Mendezes sued in Mendez v. Westminster, superintendent James Kent argued that Mexican children suffered from a “bilingual handicap” and needed separate schools. However, the Mendezes pointed out that school assignments were based on “the Latinized or Mexican name of the child.” In court, the Mendez children, their peers, and the parents all testified in fluent English. They won their case.

An exterior view of a school building that has the words "Hoover School" written on front with a gated metal fence in front.

photo by: Chapman University Digital Commons

Exterior view of Hoover Elementary in Westminster, California, where the Mendez children and others were forced to attend school while the Mendez v. Westminster case was being decided.

Mendez also directly affected the course of future litigation. First, it pioneered the use of social science in desegregation cases, according to sociologist Jeanne Powers. Expert witnesses used anthropological and sociological research to argue that segregation had negative impacts on Mexican American students. The NAACP noticed this strategy and used it in its own desegregation cases. Additionally, the decision in Mendez led to the desegregation of all California schools under Gov. Earl Warren. Warren would later write the opinion for Brown v. Board of Education as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

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Sarai Dai was the Summer 2021 Brown v. Board Intern for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is currently pursuing a MA in Public History at the University of South Carolina. Research interests include sport history, diplomatic history, and international relations, all during the Cold War period. Her prospective MA thesis will track the development of youth ice hockey in North Carolina from the 1970s to 1997.

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