Former students at a segregated school for Latinos are pushing to preserve and confront the school’s sometimes painful history and the broader story it reveals about racism in the U.S.
MARFA, Texas (CN) — For much of the 20th century, Latino students in the tiny Texas borderlands town of Marfa – like many of their peers across the Southwest – were not allowed to go to the same school as white children.
From the early 1900s to 1965, Latino students in this onetime cattle ranching and military hub attended the Blackwell School, located south of the train tracks that split the town in half, while their white counterparts went to another school.
At Blackwell, some former students have recalled, the kids were instructed to only speak English. At one point, they were even made to participate in a mock funeral – the “burial of Mr. Spanish” – where they pledged to avoid speaking what for many was their native tongue.
“I walked into the room and the teacher, she said for us to get a piece of paper and write down, ‘I will not speak Spanish in school,’” Marfa native and Blackwell alum Maggie Marquez told the nonprofit StoryCorps in 2017. “All the teachers, they had a little cigar box, and put the kids’ little papers in there.”
Segregation of Latinos in schools was not unique to Marfa, a town that in recent years has been transformed from its agricultural roots into a popular tourist retreat and international arts destination. While not enshrined in law the way Jim Crow laws barred Black students from white school across the South, Latinos were still commonly barred from white schools, businesses and other establishments for decades in Texas and other states.
Notably, in Marfa, school segregation wasn’t always the norm: for a few years in the late 1800s, before Blackwell, Latino and white children learned together under the same roof, until a new school was built just for the white kids.
In recent years, an effort launched by Blackwell alumni has sought to preserve and confront the school’s sometimes painful history and the broader story it reveals about racism in the U.S.
The Blackwell School Alliance, a local nonprofit, has worked to maintain the old adobe schoolhouse and the memories of former students. The group successfully pushed for the school to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.
Those efforts took another step forward on Friday, when two members of Congress from Texas introduced legislation that would turn the Blackwell School into a national historic site run by the National Park Service.
“We have a responsibility as a nation to care for these places and ensure the history they represent is told,” Will Hurd, the Republican congressman for much of West Texas and one of the bill’s authors, said in a statement. “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.”
Congressman Filemon Vela, a Democrat from South Texas, is the bill’s co-author.
“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,” Vela said in a statement.
Former Blackwell students have described their feelings about the school and its history as an often-complex mix of joy and pride alongside pain from the racial discrimination that Blackwell’s very existence implied.
“We didn’t know what segregation was back then, we just went where our parents told us to go to school, no questions asked,” 84-year-old Lionel Salgado, a Blackwell alum and longtime Marfa resident, said in an interview.
Salgado said he supports the creation of the national historic site.
“Mine were all good memories,” he said. “We got a good, good education there.”
Salgado described with pride how his classmates in the late 1940s to early 1950s went on to be doctors and lawyers thanks to their education at Blackwell, the kind of life trajectory that might not have been available to rural Latino kids had the school not been there.
Still, he said, racial prejudice is a part of Marfa’s history that needs to be remembered. He recalled how some of the area’s white ranchers didn’t like the idea of their Latino workers’ children going to Blackwell.
“Some of those kids that lived on the ranch had to come and stay with relatives or something so they could go to school,” Salgado said. “This was: keep them down at the ranch so they wouldn’t get any wild ideas and get smart.”
“A lot of times they say you don’t have anything to show, it didn’t happen,” Salgado said. “It did happen, and we want people to know it did happen.”
“The Blackwell school for a lot of folks was a really special place,” said Daniel Hernandez, a native Marfa resident and advisor to the Blackwell School Alliance. “But there are also folks that understandably did not have the best experience of Blackwell.”
Hernandez said talking to people “from all angles” would be key to ensuring a new national historic site accurately portrays the community’s feelings about the school. He said the site would also have the potential to expand Marfa’s popular narrative beyond that of a place just for artists and wealthy urban ex-pats.
“To be able to not only tell the story about the wonderful artists that came to town and made their homes here or have their installations here, but to also be able to tell the stories of the families of those people that were here before…I think this will kind of elevate them and give them a special place to feel like their voice is heard,” he said.
It’s not immediately clear when – or if – Congress could take up the bill from Hurd and Vela. Lawmakers in June approved a multibillion-dollar funding bill for public lands, which could make some wary of any new public lands funding in the near future.
“My only concern in waiting is that our constituents, our former students at the Blackwell school, we’re losing them,” said Gretel Enck, president of the Blackwell School Alliance. “There’s a sense of urgency in my mind about this just because of that aging population.”
“We’ll work every possible angle to see this bill become law,” Hurd said in an email. “If a larger package is a viable legislative vehicle this fall, then we’ll do our best to try and get the Blackwell bill included.”