The news media has recently revisited the landmark, 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that struck down segregation in the nation’s public schools.
The first mention came in late March with the death of Linda Brown, who was 9 years old when her father tried to enroll his children in the all-white Sumner School. When the school refused, Oliver Brown became the lead plaintiff in the legal battle.
The second mention by the media was last Thursday when Wendy Vitter, President Donald J. Trump’s nominee for a federal district judgeship in Louisiana, refused to say whether she believed Brown v. Board of Education had been correctly decided.
We, however, are not here to pore over the important Supreme Court ruling, or Vitter’s views on the case. Instead, we want to point out that the media and history books have largely overlooked the April 14, 1947 Méndez v. Westminster federal court decision that ended segregation in Orange County schools and set the table for Brown v. Board of Education.
It is important that in today’s environment where immigrants and minorities are under constant attack that the efforts of five Mexican families (Felicitas and Gonzalo Méndez were joined by the Estrada, Guzmán, Ramírez and Palomino families) be mentioned.
Sylvia Méndez was 8 years old when her aunt took her, her siblings and cousins to sign up at the Westminster school near the asparagus ranch the Méndez family leased from a Japanese American family that had been relocated during World War II. The principal informed the aunt that the school would only accept the lighter-skinned children, but that the darker-skinned children would have to go to a “Mexican school.”
“Right outside the school was this beautiful playground with monkey bars and swings and teeter-totters,” Sylvia told a Chapman University interviewer. “And you know, the Mexican school was all dirt, with no swings, no playground. We didn’t have a place to sit down and eat our lunches.”
A wire with electricity kept dairy cows from wandering onto the school ground. But, it didn’t keep the flies away from the classrooms.
That rejection got the families to strike back through the courts. Thurgood Marshall, who later became a legendary Supreme Court justice, was the lawyer for the Méndez and Brown cases. In fact, he employed some of the same arguments from the Méndez case to win the latter case.
We want to remind the national media that Méndez v. Westminster established a legal precedent seven years before the more famous national case. It also underscores the desire for Latino families to make sure their children are getting the education they need on a level playing field.
A legacy began.
The Gonzalo and Felicitas Méndez Intermediate Fundamental School was dedicated in Santa Ana in 1997. A high school with the same name opened in 2009 in Boyle Heights.
The case was the subject of a 2007, Emmy-award winning documentary, ‘Méndez vs. Westminster: For All the Children.’
The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the court case in 2007.
President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sylvia Méndez in 2011.
We must never forget this Mexican American struggle is part of American history.