Blackwell School becomes the National Park Service’s newest U.S. site

When Mario Rivera attended the Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas in the 1950s, he didn’t give it much thought.

“It was just a normal school,” the 79-year-old said. “The students were, of course, Hispanic, given that it was a separate school.”

He didn’t realize it was segregation at age 7 because everyone around him was in the same boat.

“We were never told there was another school for white students across the tracks,” Rivera said.

As adults, he and other alumni of the non-profit Blackwell School Alliance worked not only to save the school from demolition, but also to preserve its history. After years of lobbying Congress in partnership with the National Parks Conservation Association, President Joe Biden this week authorized the Blackwell School as a National Historic Landmark, and the whole country will soon be able to learn from it as a new one. US site of the National Park Service.

“As a nation, we must confront the wrongs of our past in order to build a more just and equitable future. The ugliness of the age of segregation has had many impacts that we have failed to adequately recognize as a nation,” Home Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “This new designation will help us tell a truer American story and ensure that this important and painful chapter in our nation’s history is preserved and remembered for generations to come.”

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The original Blackwell School building still stands to this day, but had been threatened with demolition before former students stepped in to save it.

What is the Blackwell School?

From 1909 to 1965, the Blackwell School was a separate school for first through eighth graders of Mexican descent in Marfa, Texas.

“If you’re a historian, you’ll remember the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought this great, great southwestern territory into the United States. Well, that treaty guaranteed that people of Mexican descent would receive full rights of American citizenship,” said Gretel Enck, president of the Blackwell School Alliance. “The way it happened was not true. Traditionally, people have been denied so many rights, and education is just one of them.”

Enck said the students had used books, sports equipment and musical instruments. They were also forbidden to speak Spanish. At one point, a mock language funeral was held at the school and students were punished with a paddle if they spoke it, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

“Many of us forgot our language and didn’t want our children to speak Spanish,” former student Jessi Silva said in a statement. “But today too we risk forgetting our history. Blackwell School is part of our history, in Marfa and beyond.”

Miss Mary Shannon's class at Blackwell School is seen around 1910.

This story is complicated and not entirely bad, according to Enck. While some former students recall feeling humiliated and discriminated against at school and in the wider community, others had “wonderful” memories, according to the Blackwell School Alliance.

“We also had a core group of really dedicated teachers at Blackwell who were sort of overcoming this systemic problem of discrimination against these kids,” Enck said. “And an interesting thing about a lot of our alumni is that they went on to pursue careers in education.”

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Why is Blackwell School becoming a National Historic Site?

Not only is Blackwell School one of the last such “Mexican schools” in good condition, but it will also be “one of the first national park sites dedicated to telling the modern history of Latinos,” according to the National parks. Conservation Association.

“Everywhere you read about other races, but the Hispanic part of American history is very limited,” Rivera said. “Preserving the Blackwell School here helps expose a bit of Hispanic history.”

Blackwell School Alliance alumni helped save the school from demolition and preserve its history.

There are a number of spaces within the National Park Service’s 423 existing sites where visitors can learn about Latin American history, but the Park Service is continually working to increase representation and inclusion in its system. .

“It is our solemn responsibility as custodians of America’s national treasures to tell the full story of our nation’s heritage for the benefit of present and future generations,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said in a statement. .

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When can I visit?

Blackwell School is currently open to the public on weekend afternoons and by appointment on weekday evenings. Details can be found on the Blackwell School Alliance website. It is currently managed by the Alliance.

It is expected to take more than a year for the National Park Service to officially acquire the land and make it a National Historic Site.

The Blackwell School will now be preserved under the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark.

“The National Park Service will continue to work closely with key stakeholders dedicated to the preservation of the Blackwell School and those directly affected by the de facto segregation of Mexican Americans in the early 1900s, to preserve and to interpret this important historic site for the public,” says Sams.

Enck is excited about the resources that come with the new designation.

“I don’t just need the money. I mean all the expertise that the Park Service brings to tell difficult stories and complicated stories of American history,” she said. “We really hope this will open doors for other stories of Hispanic and Latino history are told.”

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