Hispanic Heritage Month Observance
Mendez family championed end of educational segregation in California
LOS ANGELES — With the theme “many backgrounds, many stories,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District closed out Hispanic Heritage Month Oct. 13 at the District headquarters by hearing a first-hand account of a historic journey.
Sylvia Mendez was just 8 years old in 1943 when she and her brothers were denied enrollment in the Westminster School District in Orange County. At the time, roughly 80 percent of California school districts were segregated.
Sylvia’s father, Gonzalo, tried reasoning with the principal, the school board and finally the school district, to no-avail. He and other parents organized protests demanding an end to the segregation, ultimately filing the lawsuit.
They won their case in 1946, but the school district appealed. On April 14, 1947 the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision and California Governor Earl Warren signed a law repealing the state’s remaining school segregation statutes on June 14, 1947.
“Mendez v. Westminster School District was the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education,” said Mendez. “Seven years before the rest of the nation, California was integrated.”
The Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 does not mention the Mendez case, but it is no coincidence that two of the key players in both cases were Warren, by then Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel for the NAACP in both cases.
“As she became very sick, my mother would say, ‘nobody knows about this case and that California was the first state to be integrated, seven years before the rest of the nation’ and that’s when I promised my mother I would go around the country and talk about Mendez v. Westminster,” said Mendez.
Her mother, Felicitas, died in 1998 and Mendez has kept her promise, championing the family’s story.
Mendez’s passion has been recognized in California and around the country. Two public schools are currently named after her parents. In 2007, a U.S. Postage stamp marked the 60th anniversary of the case and on Feb. 15, 2011, President Barack Obama presented Mendez with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. With it, she once again joins Warren and Marshall.
“I talk to our folks a lot about passion in what they are doing; I see the passion in your eyes in what you are doing,” said District Commander Col. Mark Toy. “If we could all do that, it would be amazing.”
(USACE photo by Richard Rivera)