Wednesday, March 21, 2007
A desegregation landmark
The post office in April will unveil a stamp commemorating the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster case.
By FERMIN LEAL
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
SANTA ANA – Ask sixth-grader Noel Perez about important court cases that led to the desegregation of schools in the United States and he'll quickly give you a brief lesson on Mendez v. Westminster.
It was the Mendez case that ended segregation in California schools in 1947, he'll tell you. And it was that same case that helped set a precedent for the better-known Brown v. Board of Ed. seven years later.
Noel says he has an advantage in learning about the case because he attends Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Intermediate, the Santa Ana school named after the two parents who sued in 1944 because their children were turned away from an all-white school.
Noel's school hosted a ceremony Tuesday to celebrate the start of documentary filmmaker Sandra Robbie's Mendez v. Westminster Magical History Tour, aimed at raising national awareness that the Orange County landmark desegregation case will mark its 60th anniversary in April.
The U.S. Postal Service will also unveil a stamp next month to commemorate the case.
About 150 students, several local and county educators, and Sylvia and Jerome Mendez, two of the three siblings who were the first to integrate into all-white schools in 1947, attended the ceremony.
Robbie, who produced an Emmy-winning documentary on the Mendez case, will drive a newly renovated white and orange 1967 Volkswagen bus on the tour, which will stop at schools and universities.
"Almost everyone has heard of the Brown v. Board case. But many people who I have come across outside the county have never heard about Mendez v. Westminster," Robbie said.
In the mid-1940s, Westminster had only two schools – Hoover Elementary and 17th Street Elementary. El Modena, Santa Ana and Garden Grove school districts also mandated separate campuses for Hispanics.
Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr. and Jerome Mendez and the other Hispanics attended Hoover, a two-room wooden shack in the middle of the city's Mexican neighborhood.
About a mile away stood 17th Street Elementary. A row of palm and pine trees and a lawn lined the school's brick and concrete facade.
"I didn't understand why they wouldn't let my brothers and I in the nice school," said Sylvia Mendez, now 70 and a resident of Fullerton. Gonzalo Jr., now 69, lives in Orange, and Jerome, 68, lives in Yucaipa.
The U.S. Supreme Court would later cite the 1947 Mendez decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Ed. case.
The Brown decision would turn into one of the most famous judicial rulings in U.S. history, while the Mendez case went on to become a brief entry in some textbooks.
Sandra Mendez, the youngest sibling born 16 years after the case was decided, never knew of her family's landmark lawsuit until she was a student in college. She discovered the case after seeing her parents' names in law journals while researching a paper.
"Nobody really recognized my parents for what they did when they were alive," Sylvia Mendez said. "But they both would be proud now with all this attention this case is now getting."
Desegregation landmark has O.C. ties
NEW STAMP: The issuance of the 2007 stamp, Mendez v. Westminster School District, celebrates the 60th anniversary of a groundbreaking World War II-era legal case in which a group of civic-minded Hispanic parents in California successfully sued to end segregation in their schools.The 1945 case, Mendez v. Westminster, was decided in 1947 when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco established an important legal precedent by ruling school districts could not segregate on the basis of national origin.