A History of Mexican Americans in California:
Westminster School / Seventeenth Street School
Dedicated on September 6, 1935, the Westminster School in Orange County is a one-story complex, designed by J. E. Allison and constructed of stucco with a composition tile roof. The school building, which is now used as a community service center, is a landmark in the historic case of Mendez v. Westminster, which ended dejure school segregation of Mexicans in California's public schools.
Separation of school children on the basis of race and nationality dated to an 1855 legislative decision that apportioned school funds on the basis of the number of White children, ages four to 18, in each county. As a result of this legislation, Blacks, Asians, and Indians were specifically denied admission to White schools by the 1860s. Although Blacks obtained the right to a "separate but equal" education during Reconstruction, and 20 years later, the right to send their children to mixed schools, Chinese and Indian children continued as late as 1945 (according to Section 8003 of the Education Code) to be specifically denied the right to attend such mixed schools, as long as separate schools were provided for their education. Ironically, however, the code did not mention the group most commonly segregated by 1945: children of Mexican descent.
Segregation of Mexican children in public schools had kept pace with Mexican migration, a migration stimulated since the end of the nineteenth century by the availability of work on the railroads, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the shortage of laborers in the United States during World War I, and the curtailment of European immigration by restrictive legislation in the 1920s. Mexican immigration and Mexican American migration were actively encouraged not only by the railroads but by California agribusiness, which needed cheap labor to develop the Imperial and San Joaquin valleys and the citrus belt around Los Angeles. As a result, between 1920 and 1930, California's Mexican and Mexican American population tripled, making these people the state's largest minority group, a ranking they still maintain.
Their very numbers, however, as well as their concentration south of the Tehachapis (where more than 88 percent of Mexican and Mexican American students lived by 1930) encouraged segregated classrooms, if not segregated schools. Educational theories during the 1920s, which stressed "Americanization" programs with their emphasis on the exclusive use of English and glorification of American values and work habits, seemed more suitable to segregated classrooms. Social prejudice that viewed Mexicans as a threat to the health and morals of the rest of the community reinforced segregation, as did educational (I.Q.) testing, which seemed to show that students in segregated schools scored significantly higher on I.Q. tests than did students in mixed schools.
While Mexicano and Chicano parents were acutely aware of the discrimination their children suffered during these years, economic conditions during the Depression, including forced repatriation of both Mexicans and Mexican Americans, prevented cohesive opposition to the state's educational policy. By the mid-1940s, however, the situation had changed. Internally, the community could point to the contributions Mexicans and Mexican Americans had made to the war effort. And immediately following World War II, community organizations like the G.I. Forum and the Community Service Organization emerged. These groups, along with the previously established LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), actively worked to end discrimination in the barrios. Segregated schools increasingly came under attack.
In Westminster, Orange County, Gonzalo Mendez and several other Mexican American parents persuaded the school board to propose a bond issue for construction of a new, integrated school. After the bond issue was defeated, however, the school board refused to reconsider the matter. Having failed to convince local voters to abolish segregated schools, Mendez and six other plaintiffs sought legal redress.
Represented by David Marcus, a Los Angeles attorney whose services were obtained partly through the aid of LULAC, the plaintiffs sought desegregation of California's schools on the grounds that perpetuation of school admissions on the basis of race or nationality violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the national Constitution. Although the defense argued that a federal court had no jurisdiction in the case since educational policies were determined by individual states, and since the Supreme Court had determined earlier (in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) that states might segregate races, provided that such separate facilities were equal, Judge McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs on February 18, 1946:
The defense immediately announced that it would appeal the decision, which attracted national attention. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Jewish Congress, and the Japanese American Citizens League filed briefs in support of McCormick's decision. Many hoped that the appellate court would strike down the "separate but equal" doctrine itself. Although the Court of Appeals refused to challenge the decision established in Plessy v. Fergusson, the court did uphold McCormick's decision that segregation of Mexican and Mexican American children violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
While the "separate but equal" doctrine was to stand another seven years,
Warren was certainly familiar with the Mendez v. Westminster case, which led to legislation to repeal Sections 8003 and 8004 of the Education Code, the last school segregation laws on California's books. The Anderson Bill, as it was known, passed both the California Assembly and the Senate by a large majority and was signed into law by Governor Earl Warren on June 14, 1947.
In Orange County, school officials decided not to pursue their opposition to the case, and in September 1947, integrated schools opened in Westminster, Garden Grove, El Modeno, and Santa Ana, apparently with little trouble. School board members in Riverside, impressed by McCormick's decision, voluntarily permitted the opening of integrated schools.
The Mendez v. Westminster case, however, applied only to de jure segregation, and not to the de facto segregation that created separate schools in large urban districts such as Los Angeles. Increasing urbanization of California's Spanish-speaking population after 1947 was accompanied by greater de facto segregation. One UCLA historian and civil liberties activist concluded that two-thirds of the students of Mexican descent in Los Angeles attended substantially segregated schools, and statewide, more Mexican and Mexican American children probably attended segregated schools in 1973 than in 1947.
Despite such setbacks, the importance of Mendez v. Westminster remains clear. The case "stripped away the formal structure of legalized segregation and exposed the underlying conditions of racism and reaction that divide the American people and plague their consciences." (Wollenberg, p. 135)