With a stroke of his pen, President Biden directed the National Park Service to save history at this former segregated school for Latinos
WASHINGTON – Today, President Biden signed The Blackwell School National Historic Site Act into law, designating a half-acre school campus in West Texas as one of the first national park sites dedicated to telling modern Latino history.
In communities across the Southwest, school districts once enforced “de facto segregation,” forcing Mexican American children to attend separate schools from their white peers. Mexican American children were given outdated textbooks and shoddy equipment and in many cases were punished for speaking in their native language. At the Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas, teachers instructed students to write “Mr. Spanish,” on slips of paper, and then held a mock funeral for the Spanish language, burying a coffin with the slips on the school’s campus.
In 2006, Joseph Cabezuela, Lionel Salgado, Jessi Silva, and fellow alumni learned that the Blackwell School was slated for possible demolition. Recalling the complicated mixture of both joyful and sorrowful memories they had of their school, they formed the Blackwell School Alliance and rallied to save the school. They held a ceremony to dig up Mr. Spanish. In 2018, they partnered with the National Parks Conservation Association in calling for the school to be preserved by the National Park Service.
Today, the Blackwell School National Historic Site in Marfa, Texas protects one of the last remaining “Mexican schools,” standing in good condition ensuring the experiences and history here is never forgotten. First introduced in 2020 by former Representatives Will Hurd and Filemon Vela of Texas, the Blackwell School National Historic Site Act proved an example of rare bipartisan agreement amid challenging conversations about racism across the country. The final bill was championed by Representative Tony Gonzales (R-TX-23) and Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Alex Padilla (D-CA).
NPCA has led the charge for new national park sites dedicated to diverse history, including the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and Stonewall National Monument. Our National Park System must tell the full American story, which includes stories like the Blackwell School’s and beyond.
“What is so inspirational about the Blackwell School National Historic Site is that this story could have ended entirely differently. Given some of the painful memories of discrimination and segregation that linger in this three-room schoolhouse, alumni would have been well within their rights to let it crumble into ruin. After all, that has been the fate of many such segregated schools and other difficult pieces of American history.“ said Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Instead, the students of Blackwell committed themselves to preserving their school so future generations could learn from the complex history contained behind its century-old adobe walls. They painstakingly cataloged their fond memories of the playground, marching band and their beloved teachers, as well as the darker ones, like being paddled for speaking their native language. They joined national park advocates across the country in calling on Congress to designate their school a national historic site and protect it for good, so that America could remember and learn from this chapter of our history.
“Today, the President signed a law to ensure that Blackwell students’ efforts to protect this vital piece of Mexican American history were not in vain. With a stroke of his pen, he directed America’s greatest storyteller, the National Park Service, to safeguard the Blackwell School National Historic Site from harm and teach visitors from around the world about this little-known chapter of our country’s history.
“This national park site will be a testament to the resilience of Mexican American communities in our country’s borderlands, and the immeasurable impact they have had on the United States of America. The Blackwell School belongs as a national park site because Mexican Americans belong here in our country.”
“The promise of equality for Americans of Mexican descent in our country’s southern borderlands has long been a hollow one.” said Gretel Enck, President of the Blackwell School Alliance.
“Despite the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo promising them full rights as American citizens, Mexican Americans in this region were regularly excluded from commingling with white peers at barber shops, restaurants, funeral homes, theaters, churches, and schools. The Blackwell School is a tangible reminder of this era when “separate but equal” dominated education and social systems.
“Today we celebrate the creation of the Blackwell School National Historic Site as a portal into that history, and an opportunity to realize the promise of equality. The original 1909 adobe schoolhouse is a deeply authentic space for the collective memory of the segregated “Mexican School” experience. Now, after years of organizing by Blackwell alumni, the site is in the capable hands of the National Park Service. This is a giant step forward in honoring the stories and experiences of all Americans.”
“Learning to forget is forgetting to learn, and what I mean is that at the Blackwell School we were forbidden to use our Spanish language.” said Jessi Silva, Blackwell School alumna and founding Blackwell School Alliance Board Member. “And a lot of us forgot our language and didn’t want our children to speak Spanish. But also today, we are in danger of forgetting our history. The Blackwell School is part of our history, in Marfa and beyond. And now we see how it is bringing people together, learning the good and the bad. Blackwell School is a stepping stone to learn about history, about diversity, and really what it means to be an American. More than anything, I’m an American and this is our story. Today, knowing that our school will live on and be a place of learning and understanding, I am so happy and so grateful.”
“For decades, the Blackwell School served as the only institution in Marfa where the Hispanic community could receive an education. It was here that generations of Latino students faced the challenge of being considered as “separate but equal”, said Congressman Tony Gonzales (R-TX-23). “For that reason, it is important for us to honor and preserve this building where such historic accounts took place. I am proud to see that legislation by Senator Cornyn, Senator Padilla, and I will establish the Blackwell School as a national park site to commemorate this chapter of Latino history in the United States.”
“As we celebrate today’s signing of the Blackwell School National Historic Site Act, we honor the stories of the students who were painfully impacted by de facto segregation and discrimination against Mexican Americans during that period of history,” said Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA). “Preserving sites like the Blackwell School through our National Park System allows current and future generations to better learn from some of the most difficult, but important, parts of our nation’s history. This historical site designation brings us one step closer to building a future that promotes diversity and justice based on the lessons our country has learned from the past.”
About the National Parks Conservation Association: Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than 1.5 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org
About the Blackwell School Alliance: The Blackwell School Alliance and its partners preserve and restore historic resources associated with the Blackwell School; interpret and commemorate the era of segregated Hispanic education; and serve the Marfa, Texas, community culturally, historically, and educationally for the benefit of all Marfa residents and visitors, now and into the future. For more information, visit www.theblackwellschool.org.
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