Before 'Brown V. Board,' Mendez Fought California's Segregated Schools : Code Switch Latino families sued four Orange County school districts over school segregation. The case, Mendez v. Westminster, ended school segregation in California seven years before Brown v. Board.

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

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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.


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.


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...


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.

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