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Segregated Texas school for Mexican Americans could become historic site

The history of the Blackwell School in Marfa, where a mock funeral was held for Spanish words, could be part of the National Park System under a Senate-passed bill.

At a time when conservatives are waging campaigns against teaching about systemic racism in the U.S., the Senate has moved to preserve evidence of it in Texas.

The Blackwell School in Marfa, where Mexican American children were educated separately from white children, would become a national historic site and part of the National Park System of the National Park Service under a bill the Senate passed on a voice vote last week.

The school was built in 1909 to teach Hispanic children. Mexican American and Mexican children were educated there through the ninth grade.

The Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas.
The Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas.

Children were forced to speak only English on campus. The school held a mock funeral ceremony on the grounds where slips of paper with Spanish words written on them were buried, according to the text of a state historical landmark posted in Marfa.

“Although there was no state law that mandated separate schools for Hispanic students, Texas school districts perpetuated the practice of de facto segregation through the mid-twentieth century,” says a Texas Historical Commission report on the school.

Although the school is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the proposed designation as a national historic landmark would make it one of the few national park sites commemorating Latino history and culture in the U.S.

The school is in Marfa, a West Texas town known for being home to the McDonald Observatory, an astronomical observatory run by the University of Texas at Austin, and for being where the classic movie “Giant” was filmed.

A group known as the Blackwell School Alliance says on its website that it has worked 15 years to preserve the school’s oral history and its buildings.

According to the 2020 census, the share of Texans who are Hispanic is nearly even with that of those who are white alone and not Hispanic or Latino. Hispanics were responsible for almost half of the growth in the state over the past decade.

Conservative and far-right groups and lawmakers are waging campaigns to curtail the study of race and ethnic studies in public schools, with some of the opposition focused on teaching the existence of systemic or institutional racism.

The Senate bill was sponsored by John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Alex Padilla, D-Calif. The House approved a similar bill sponsored by Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, by a vote of 417-8 in December. The eight who voted "no" were Republicans, including Rep. Chip Roy of Texas.

In a news release after the vote, Cornyn said: “Texas has a rich and diverse history and it’s time for this piece of our story to receive proper recognition.

“We must ensure that this building will stand for generations, and educate Americans of all backgrounds on the progress we’ve made as a nation,” he stated.

Padilla said in a statement to NBC News: "Our national park system has a long way to go when it comes to adequately preserving Latino history. ... Understanding our nation's history of segregation and discrimination toward Latinos in places like the Blackwell School is integral to building a more just future in America."

The Senate bill corrects a map of the site in the House version, so the House would have to vote on a corrected version and make no changes for the legislation to be sent for President Joe Biden’s signature.

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