Google doodle honors OC civil rights icon who helped end school segregation

An Orange County civil rights pioneer who helped bring an end to forced segregation in California’s education system and paved the way for school integration across the United States became the subject of a Google doodle tribute this week.

In the 1940s, Felicitas Mendez and her husband Gonzalo successfully fought for the right to enroll their children in a Westminster public school. Late Monday, her likeness appeared as an animated image on Google’s homepage day in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which spans Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.

The graphic was accompanied by a mini-documentary explaining how the project came about.

“I’m so excited because they’re picturing my mother,” her daughter Sylvia Mendez told the Orange County Register on Tuesday. “She’s the one, when I retired from nursing, who said, ‘Please go out and tell the story.’ Go around the country and talk about it.”

Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez
Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez

As the world’s most popular search engine, Google occasionally makes temporary and unannounced changes to its homepage logo to celebrate holidays and historical figures. Since 1999, about 4,000 doodles have been posted on Google websites serving different parts of the world.

Felicitas Mendez may not be a household name, but she’s certainly worthy of the tribute. She played a pivotal role in the landmark desegregation case that bears her family’s name and predated the more well-known Brown v. Board ruling by about a decade.

In 1943, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez tried to enroll their three children, Sylvia and brothers Geronimo and Gonzalo, in Westminster’s 17th Street School, known then as the “white school.” Even though they were American citizens, the Mendezes were told their children would have to attend the less desirable Hoover Elementary, which was designated for students of Mexican heritage.

When district officials similarly denied their entry, Felicitas and Gonzalo hired a local attorney and later teamed up with four other Orange County families to take legal action. Their suit, Mendez, et al v. Westminster, argued that 5,000 children throughout the county were unjustly targeted by unconstitutional segregation policies.

The five families won a groundbreaking victory in the U.S. District Court in 1946, and the following year the ruling was upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court applied an even broader brush, declaring in Brown v. Board that segregated schools across the country were in violation of the Constitution.

Gonzalo Mendez died in 1964 at age 51. Felicitas Mendez died more than three decades later, in 1998. But before she passed, she encouraged her daughter to share the family’s story.

Sylvia Mendez, now 84, continues to speak across the country about the civil rights struggle that began when she was just 8 years old. In 2011, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

Last year, the headquarters of the Westminster School District changed its marquee to read, “Westminster School District, In Honor of La Familia Mendez.” OCDE has also teamed up with the city of Westminster to create a local monument and trail that will honor the case.