Before 'Brown V. Board,' Mendez Fought California's Segregated Schools

May 16, 2014
Originally published on May 16, 2014 10:51 pm

Sylvia Mendez says the only reason she wanted to go to an all-white school in California's Westminster District in the 1940s was because of its beautiful playground. The school that she and other Latino students were forced to attend didn't have monkey bars or swings.

"I was 9 years old," she says. "I just thought my parents wanted us to go to the nice-looking school."

But her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas, were fighting for integration. Seven years before the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Mendezes brought a class-action lawsuit with other Latino families against four Orange County school districts that had separate schools for whites and Mexicans. Their case went all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And in 1947 they won: Segregation in those districts ended, and the rest of the state followed.

"I went to court every single day not knowing what they were fighting for," says Mendez, now 77. She shows off the official honors that line her home office in Orange County. There are photos with presidents past and present, certificates from across the country recognizing her for what her family did, and coffee mugs from every university she has been invited to speak to.

Today, two schools in Southern California are named after her parents: the Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center in Los Angeles and the Gonzalo Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana.

The Santa Ana middle school — which people call Mendez for short — sits in one of the districts named in Mendez v. Westminster.

At the relatively new school (it was built in 1998), Principal Dennis Cole shows off amenities like campus Wi-Fi and a music program where kids have access to instruments and start learning to read music in the sixth grade.

In Ms. Moreno's math class, students are learning ratios. I ask the sixth-graders what they know about Mendez v. Westminster.

"There was a school," 12-year-old Jose Gonzales says, tentatively. "And, they started taking kids out, because ... "

"Because of segregation," his classmate Abraham Lopez finishes. "There was supposed to be different schools between Hispanics and Americans."

Principal Cole says that by eighth grade most of the kids know the history of the case by heart.

There are more than 1,300 students at Mendez. It's what Cole calls a "school of choice," meaning parents can choose to send their kids here from all over the district, something that was unheard of for Latino families in Santa Ana before Mendez.

But nobody would call this middle school integrated: 98 percent of the students are Latino, and 92 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Sylvia Mendez tells me she has witnessed re-segregation over the decades. "We're more segregated in schools today than we were in 1947," she says, adding that in the past 40 years she has watched her neighborhood go from strongly middle class and diverse to more working class and Latino.

"Two schools that are named after my mother and father are 99 and 100 percent Latino, so what does that tell you?" Mendez says. "They fought and they won, so by law we cannot be segregated — that is called de jure -- but what we have now is de facto segregation."

According to a report out this week from UCLA's Civil Rights Project, half of all Latino kids in California go to schools where at least 90 percent of the students are Hispanic or African-American, and poor. And, 67 years after Mendez, California has surpassed Texas as the state where Latino schoolchildren are the most segregated.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sixty years ago this weekend, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Students now learn about that ruling in schools that were integrated because of it. This morning we have some of the little known back story. It's a California case that preceded the 1954 Court decision.

NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji reports.

SYLVIA MENDEZ: OK, this is from the Consulado de Mexico, so I'm really proud of that.

And then this is the one from President Obama right here

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Sylvia Mendez is giving me a tour of the official honors that line the walls of her home office in Orange County. There are photos of her with presidents past and present, and certificates from universities across the country recognizing her for what her family did way back in 1947.

MENDEZ: Seven years before Brown, Mendez was the first case that was fought that stated separate but equal is never equal.

MERAJI: She's talking about Mendez v. Westminster, a class action suit her parents brought with other Latino families against four Orange County school districts that had separate schools for whites and Mexicans. The Mendez kids lived in the Westminster district and weren't allowed to go to the school closest to their home because they weren't white.

MENDEZ: The only reason I wanted to go to that school was because they had a playground right on the side of the school. It had a beautiful monkey bars and swings and we didn't have that in the other school. I was nine years old, I went to court every single day not knowing what they were fighting for. I just thought my parents wanted us to go to the nice looking school.

MERAJI: She says she realized when she got older that her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, were fighting for integration. Their federal case went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and they won. Segregation in those four Orange County districts ended and the rest of the state followed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

MERAJI: Today, two schools in Southern California are named after Sylvia's parents, a high school in Los Angeles and this middle school in Santa Ana - one of the districts named in Mendez v. Westminster.

DENNIS COLE: The official name of the school is Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School. So it's a long name, so we usually call it Mendez.

MERAJI: Dennis Cole has been the principal for three years and tours me around this relatively new school, pointing out amenities like campus Wi-Fi and music classes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I interrupt Ms. Moreno's math class to ask her sixth graders what they know about Mendez v. Westminster. Twelve-year-old Jose Gonzales starts us off and classmate Abraham Lopez jumps in with the assist.

JOSE GONZALES: There was a school and then Westminster started taking kids out, because...

MRS. MORENO: Anyone want to help?

ABRAHAM LOPEZ: Because of segregation.

MORENO: Keep going...

(LAUGHTER)

LOPEZ: There was supposed to be different schools between Hispanics and Americans.

MERAJI: And they people who the school was named after, what did they do?

LOPEZ: They wanted Hispanics to be also with Americans.

MERAJI: Principal Cole says pretty close and by eight grade they know it by heart. There are more than 1,300 kids at Mendez. And it's what he calls a school of choice, meaning parents can choose to send their kids here from all over the district - unheard of for Latino families in Santa Ana before Mendez v. Westminster. But nobody would call this middle school integrated.

COLE: We're 98 percent Latino, which is pretty much in keeping with the whole city of Santa Ana. We're 21 percent English Language Learner, 59 percent are what we call re-designated English Language learners - they become fluent in English. As far as those that are socio-economically disadvantaged, we're 92 percent that qualify for free and reduced lunch.

MENDEZ: To me, we're more segregated in schools than we were in 1947.

MERAJI: Back at Sylvia Mendez's home office, she says in the last 40 years she's also watched her neighborhood go from strongly middle-class and diverse to more working-class and Latino.

MENDEZ: The two schools that are named after my mother and father are 99 and 100 percent Latino. So what does that tell you? They fought and they won by law, we cannot be segregated - that's called by de juror. What we have now is de facto segregation.

MERAJI: Half of all Latino kids in California go to schools where at least 90 percent of the students are Hispanic or African-American, and poor. That's according to a report out this week by UCLA's Civil Rights Project. And 67 years after Mendez v. Westminster, California has surpassed Texas as the state where Latino schoolchildren are the most segregated.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.