Dec 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Preserving history of Mexican American school segregation

Actor James Dean on the set of the movie "Giant" in July 1955 in Marfa, Texas.
Actor James Dean on the set of the movie "Giant" in July 1955 in Marfa, Texas, with Mexican American children who attended a nearby segregated school. Photo: Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Activists in the small town of Marfa, Texas, are working to get national recognition for a building once used as a segregated school for Mexican American students, some of who were used as extras in the 1956 movie, "Giant."

Why it matters: Efforts to preserve the Blackwell School in West Texas are part of a movement to save sites connected to the nation's history of racial segregation and racial terror as a way to reckon with the past.

Driving the news: The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the Blackwell School National Historic Site Act, clearing one of the last hurdles in the National Parks Conservation Association’s campaign to make the school a national park site.

Details: Opened in 1909, the adobe building served as a Mexican American-only school for students who were barred from attending the town's nearby white-only school.

  • Mexican American former students would later recall the emotional abuse and discrimination they faced on campus.
  • For example, some teachers made students write Spanish words on paper, place those papers in a box and bury “Mr. Spanish” in a symbolic funeral in front of Marfa’s Blackwell School, according to the 2015 PBS Voces documentary “Children of Giant.”
  • "The Blackwell School is a tangible reminder of the period during which the doctrine of 'separate but equal' dominated education and social systems," the bill reads. It recently passed out of a U.S. Senate committee.
  • The proposal could go before the whole Senate or be attached to a larger bill.
Original Blackwell School, 1909.
Original Blackwell School, 1909. Photo: Courtesy of The Blackwell School Alliance.

The intrigue: A number of Blackwell students had small roles in the George Stevens film, "Giant," which stars Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.

  • The movie was about the racism Mexican Americans face and was based on the novel with the same name by Edna Ferber. She had interviewed Mexican American civil rights leaders Dr. Hector P. García and John J. Herrera as part of her research.
  • Many of the Mexican American children who starred in the film couldn't see it when it was released because the theaters in nearby towns were segregated.

Flashback: In a 1965 speech to a joint session of Congress, then-President Lyndon Johnson recalled a time when he taught in a segregated Mexican American school in Cotulla, Texas, in the 1920s.

  • “Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child,” Johnson said.
  • Johnson was urging Congress to respond to the beatings of protesters in Selma, Alabama, by passing a federal Voting Rights Act.

Don't forget: School segregation between Black and white students has returned to 1968 levels, even as the nation grows more diverse, according to a report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Yes, but: The resegregation of U.S. schools often doesn't produce all-Black schools as the declining contact with whites has been replaced by growing contact with Latinos, an issue that has received little research.

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