In 1946, eight years before the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education that ended racial segregation in schools, a group of Mexican American families in California won the very first federal court case ruling that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, and it all started with eight-year-old Sylvia Mendez.
The historical focus on segregated schools typically falls on the Southern United States, but other parts of the country also discriminated against people of color. Though no official "Jim Crow" laws existed in California or throughout the Southwest, many communities in that state enforced their own segregation starting in the 1920s, when many Mexican laborers arrived to work in Southern California’s citrus groves. Restaurants would post “No Mexicans” allowed signs, movie theaters forced Mexicans to sit in the balconies, and public pools opened for Mexicans only once-per-week and drained before white residents could use them again.
California schools justified the segregated school model by touting that the Mexican schools gave students specialized instruction in English to help them assimilate into American culture. Instead, the rundown schools trained young Mexican Americans to become field workers and house cleaners. Sylvia Mendez’s family moved to the town of Westminster outside of Los Angeles in 1944. The family unsuccessfully tried to register their children at the local "white" school, a school that their more fair-skinned relatives with the Vidaurri last name attended. Gonzalo Mendez, Sylvia’s father, decided to challenge the school board, which refused to change its policies. He, along with four other families, formally filed what is now known as Mendez v. Westminster lawsuit, which they won in California Federal District court in 1946.
Sylvia Mendez went on to a career in pediatric nursing. After her retirement, she devoted her life to telling the story of her family and the legacy of the case. In 2010, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for President Barak Obama for her advocacy for educational opportunity for "children of all backgrounds and all walks of life."
Article written by Maria Moreno
Image: Sylvia Mendez