OCDE is teaming up with the city of Westminster to create content and curriculum for a local trail and monument that will honor the legacy of the historic Mendez v. Westminster case, which led to the desegregation of California’s public schools.
Construction of the Mendez Historic Freedom Trail and Monument is set to begin early next year and will be funded largely through a grant from the California Natural Resources Agency.
But the project is also supported by contributions from individuals and organizations, including the not-for-profit College Board, and city officials are looking to raise an additional $80,000 to reach their goal. Donations can be made at www.MendezTribute.com.
“This case is one that belongs in California history books, and I’m proud to work with city and school officials to help expand its legacy and show children today what we fought for not so long ago,” said Sylvia Mendez, who was in elementary school when her parents filed suit against the Westminster school district after their children were denied enrollment at 17th Street School in 1943.
Separate and unequal
As recently as the 1940s, Mexican-American children were directed to separate, uniformly inferior schools in many areas, including Orange County. Yet Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez challenged that premise, and they were later joined by four other families who argued that school segregation practices violated their constitutional rights as American citizens.
The federal courts agreed, and the ruling was upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947, leading to the desegregation of all California schools. That case ultimately laid the foundation for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down school segregation nationwide.
Despite its importance, Mendez v. Westminster is not nearly as well known as Brown v. Board, and it is not required teaching in California schools.
“It is so important to remind people that the pursuit of equality does not always come easily, but it is essential to building a society where people can succeed based on their merits and character, not their skin tone or country of origin,” said Sergio Contreras, founder of the Westminster Heritage Memorial Committee and a Westminster City Council member.
Contreras said the Mendez Historic Freedom Trail and Monument will “make Westminster a destination for all students throughout Orange County to visit, discover its history, and learn that ordinary people can do the extraordinary.”
Artist, muralist and sculptor Ignacio Gomez has been tapped to create the monument to Mendez v. Westminster, providing educational and cultural enrichment. In addition, curriculum and content will be developed for visitors of all ages.
OCDE envisions an immersive learning experience for those who walk or bike the 2.5 miles along Hoover Avenue onto Westminster Avenue toward the monument. Participants will be able to read interpretive panels, see themes captured on banners hung from light poles, read messages embedded in the sidewalks, and access audio and internet content on their smartphones.
“Visitors and residents of Westminster will be able to review the events leading up to the Mendez case, immerse themselves in that period of local history and explore the ways the case has impacted our lives today,” said Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares.
The curriculum will be mirrored on a website, which will include further interpretive activities and lesson plans for teachers who bring students to the trail and monument. The content will highlight the ways in which the Mendezes and other Orange County families worked against great odds to help their community and the nation put the principles of the Declaration of Independence into practice — most notably the affirmation that “all men are created equal.”
The New York-based College Board is among the organizations supporting the local effort.
“Mendez v. Westminster marks a powerful moment in our nation’s history, and the College Board is honored to contribute to supporting its legacy,” said Scott Hill, College Board Vice President for the Western Region. “This monument not only pays tribute to our past, but also helps set the stage for a brighter future.”
Construction is set to begin in early 2019. To make a donation, view renderings or learn more, visit www.MendezTribute.com. And be sure to check out the brief video recap of the project above.