Sep 15, 2022 - World

Latina behind landmark desegregation case is passing the torch

Sylvia Mendez speaks onstage durin the Raizado Festival Icon Awards Ceremony & Dinner at Doerr-Hosier Center at the Aspen Meadows Resort.
Sylvia Mendez speaks at the Aspen Meadows Resort. Photo: Nick Tininenko/Getty Images for The Latinx House)\

Sylvia Mendez has dedicated much of her life to ensuring that the legacy of her parents' landmark school desegregation crusade on her behalf be remembered. But, at the age of 86, she's ready to pass the torch, she told Axios.

Why it matters: Mendez was at the center of the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster case that ended legal school segregation in California and helped set up the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision.

The big picture: For 20 years, she has campaigned to raise awareness of the case. Now the city of Westminster is building a Mendez Historic Freedom Trail and Monument to tell her family's story.

  • Mendez was honored last month at the Raizado Festival Icon Awards Ceremony and Dinner at the Aspen Meadows Resort, but she told Axios she is ready for her younger sister, Sandra Mendez Duran, to take up the campaign.
  • The younger sister was born after the case was decided and said she never heard her parents talk about it. “They didn't brag. They were humble people.”

Background: In 1945, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez sued a school district in Westminster that refused to enroll their children because of their dark skin color.

  • The case brought together Black and Latino intellectuals and lawyers. Education scholar George I. Sanchez and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, soon started corresponding about future school desegregation strategies

The result: The case went to trial in federal court in Los Angeles and the plaintiffs won. On April 14, 1947, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision. Two months later, then-California Gov. Earl Warren outlawed school segregation in the state.

Yes, but: The Mendez case for decades was forgotten outside of historian, legal and academic circles since it was overshadowed by the more well-known Brown vs. Board of Ed case.

  • "I saw my family's name in a book once and told this Chicano professor that was us. He didn't even seem to care," Sandra Mendez Duran, the younger sister, told Axios.

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