A bipartisan effort to turn a segregated school into a monument

House bill would make the Blackwell School, attended by thousands of Mexican American children in southwest Texas, a national landmark

Blackwell School first-graders in 1947.  (Blackwell School Alliance)
Blackwell School first-graders in 1947. (Blackwell School Alliance)
Posted September 15, 2020 at 6:00am

From 1909 through 1965, thousands of children of Mexican descent in southwest Texas went to the segregated Blackwell School, even though there were no state laws mandating segregation.

Now, as the Interior Department and other federal agencies are under pressure to do a better job of reflecting American history’s racist chapters, a bipartisan bill would make the school a national landmark.

Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Filemon Vela, D-Texas, introduced the bill to designate the school in Marfa, a town of 1,700 people in Hurd’s district in the state’s southwest, as a National Historic Site under the National Park Service.

Under Jim Crow laws throughout the South, schools were banned from instructing white and Black students together. While no such law existed in Texas against teaching white and Mexican children together, authorities enforced a de facto separation nonetheless.

“We have a responsibility as a nation to care for these places and ensure the history they represent is told,” Hurd said. “Blackwell School might represent a dark time in our nation’s past, but we must not shy away from our past so future generations learn from it.”

Vela said marking Blackwell, which had about 4,000 students over the years, as a place where unwritten segregation was carried out is vital: “This bill would recognize the Blackwell School for its role as both an academic and cultural cornerstone at a time when the practice of ‘separate but equal’ dominated education and social systems.”

Blackwell was added to the National Register of Historic Places in December, after alumni applied, and the Blackwell School Alliance, a local advocacy group, has maintained the three-room adobe schoolhouse — one of the few remaining schools that implemented anti-Latino segregation in the state.

The National Park Service manages 419 sites, from battlefields and mountainous stretches of wilderness to the National Mall and Stonewall National Monument in New York City, a landmark site for LGBT rights. But only one NPS site, the César E. Chávez National Monument in California, was created to honor and interpret modern Latino heritage, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Hurd got involved when the Blackwell School Alliance contacted him while he was in his district and explained the school’s story, leading to collaboration with the parks conservation association and Vela’s office.

History and race

The bill comes as the Interior Department, the NPS and other federal agencies are wrestling with how to reflect the central role of racism and slavery in American history, as well as the criticism that national parks are unwelcoming for nonwhite visitors. On the national stage, President Donald Trump has defended the Confederate flag as a historic symbol and condemned proposals in Congress to rename military bases named after Confederate soldiers from the Civil War.

The White House also opposes a provision in a House spending bill that passed the chamber in July that would eliminate Confederate monuments from NPS sites, like the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.

More than 83 percent of the agency’s full- and part-time workers are white, according to agency data, roughly 20 percentage points more than the average across the federal government. And an analysis that the left-leaning Center for American Progress released in 2015 found only one-quarter of national parks and monuments “have a primary focus on women, communities of color, or other traditionally underrepresented groups.”

These figures have led advocates to the criticism that America’s national parks, often called America’s “greatest idea,” are also one of its “whitest.”

Dallas Kelley-Kerr, senior manager of community affairs in Texas for the parks conservation group, said places like Blackwell are important because they can amplify “lost” voices in the past and help Black and brown Americans connect with the country’s history.

“We’re going to have to find more entry points for more people to see themselves in a national park,” Kelley-Kerr said by phone.

She said NPS sites tend to tell stories and actions of white Americans. “They do have a white or an Anglo history, and that’s a reflection of the history of our country,” she said, adding that the Park Service has “done a good job in interpreting” its sites with the information “they were given at the time.”

Her colleague, Theresa Pierno, the president and CEO of the NPCA, said it was overdue for a national park focused on Latino history in Texas.

“From West Texas to towns across our land, Latino people have helped shape the story of America for centuries,” she said. “It is long past time for a national park dedicated solely to Latino history in Texas, and the unique cultural identity of the Blackwell School makes it a perfect candidate.”

David Vela, the acting director of the NPS and the first Latino to hold the job, said in August he would retire this month.