School lawsuit from 1914 remembered

CONEJOS/ALAMOSA — The nation’s earliest victory in the war against educational segregation took place in the San Luis Valley and only recently came to light.

It was a battle well fought, but the big win lay hidden for more than a century.

In 1914, "The Denver Catholic Register" called the decision "historic," noting that it “was the first time in the history of America that a court fight was made over an attempt to segregate Mexicans in school.” The suit grew from grassroots concern for equal education of Alamosa’s children.

Dating back to 1912 when Alamosa was still part of Conejos County, A deep blizzard had paralyzed Denver and Alamosa being Alamosa, bad weather emerged locally.

Ten-year-old Miguel Maestas was forced to walk seven blocks from his home on the north end of Ross Ave. to the "Mexican" school building at the intersection of Ninth and Ross.

In addition, as a railroad man, Francisco Maestas knew the dangers of the railroad crossing, as well as the weather and, on Sept. 2, 1913, went to the Superintendent of Schools and asked to enroll his son. The request was refused and Maestas was told he had to enroll his son in the "Mexican School."

The debate headed for the courts. Until then, Miguel would be required to attend the school at the intersection of Ninth Street and Ross Avenue.

Lying unnoticed from 1914 to 2016 and labeled Francisco Maestas et al vs. George H. Shone et al, the suit has been cited as a perfect example of resistance to segregation in Colorado’s “Hispano Homeland,” a concept made popular by historian Richard Nostrand, who contended the area was where people of Mexican descent had long been isolated and removed from Mexico, forming their own culture.

The town of Alamosa was incorporated in June 1878 when the Rio Grande Railroad made its hub in the San Luis Valley. What is now Alamosa County was the northern part of Costilla and Conejos counties that date back to 1876 when Colorado became a state. It was the last county in Colorado, dedicated on Saturday, March 8, 1913.

Ceded by Mexico in 1848 and protected in part by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the San Luis Valley was part of the United States long before any of the principals were born. Statehood was granted on Aug. 1, 1876.

The inaccurate cultural terms continued.

On Dec. 5, 1913, the Alamosa Journal reported, "About the worst thing that could happen in Alamosa County and surrounding community, now that the Alamosa County embroglio has already happened, would be the defeat of the school directors in the recent suit filed against them."

The suit was covered by what was then a rudimentary wire service, but not every newspaper included the story. Even in the headlines where the suit was reported, reference was made to “Mexican” children and “American” families.

School board members and the superintendent School District 3 apparently assumed that, if one was Spanish-surnamed, he or she wasn't "American" and could not speak, read or write in English, so a special school was needed to teach the children in the language with which they were most comfortable.

Land for the school was purchased in 1909 and there was no secret that it was to serve only "Mexicans."

The 1910 census shows Maestas, his wife Margaret, son Miguel and daughter Josie residing at 117 Ross Avenue in Alamosa. Maestas was listed as an English speaker, his wife fluent in Spanish. Josie’s education never became an issue; in fact, education of female children didn’t seem to be a concern.

F.A. McKinney’s 1911 directory of Alamosa, Conejos and Saguache county residents lists Maestas as a foreman for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, while the suit points to dangers facing Miguel as he was forced to walk seven blocks to school across busy railroad tracks.

Attorneys writing in an online analysis contend that the suit “provides a portrait of community organizing to advocate for the education of their children.”

Many Hispanic families moved to Alamosa so the men could work on the railroad, and so it was with the Maestases.

The suit was filed in 1913, the same year Alamosa County was organized, and differed fundamentally from two similar cases that were filed more than 15 years later and drew the “first ever” acclaim away from Alamosa due to the fact that they were better publicized.

Both cases were rooted near the Mexican border and received financial and moral support from the Mexican Consulate, while the Alamosa plaintiffs lived far from the border and were deeply rooted in the San Luis Valley.

On March 21, 1914, the Alamosa Courier announced that Mexican Americans had won the court battle.

The paper published Holbrook’s entire decision and explained that the segregation was not because the Mexican children could not speak English “but because of race prejudice the school board and the city superintendent held against his (Maestas’) people.”

A suit filed in Texas claimed Mexican plaintiffs were part of “the other white race” and thus exempt from legal segregation under Texas law.

Another suit, filed in California, contended that California did not have a law that allowed for the segregation of Mexican children while laws were on the books regarding segregation of other named races.

Article IX, Section 8 of the Colorado Constitution stated, “no sectarian tenets or doctrines shall ever be taught in the public schools, nor shall any distinction and classification of pupils be made on account of race or color.”

Led by Maestas, local plaintiffs contended racial prejudice was a driving force behind the erection of a separate school building, as well as school administration efforts to segregate their children.

Mexican-American parents pulled their children out of school in protest, an action the school district later seized upon to claim Maestas wasn’t interested in his son’s educational progress, so shouldn't be allowed to sue.

However, writers at the Denver Catholic Register suggested Alamosa school officials chose to allow the children to go without education rather than change their stance on forcing “Mexican” children to attend another school.

An earlier school board had decided to build a new school in which Spanish-speaking youth could be educated in both languages in order to pave their way into higher grades. It was explained they could be taught concepts in English with explanations in Spanish, if needed. That didn’t happen.

Superintendent George O. Thompson muddied the waters by establishing a policy that required all “Mexican children” attend the “Mexican school” whether they were fluent in English or not.

Some parents disagreed, formed “the Spanish American Union” and drafted a resolution challenging the decision. It was signed by some 180 of them and presented to the school board, which ignored it.

The Alamosa Journal then refused to print the resolution and the editor began to oppose the proposed integration of schools.

Union members began raising funds for court costs and money was raised. The local priest, Father Montell, went to Denver and talked to attorney Raymond Sullivan, who agreed to represent the plaintiffs.

Francisco Maestas was named plaintiff to represent others who weren’t specifically named.

After a lengthy trial, District Court Judge Charles Holbrook determined that the plaintiffs had made a sufficient case for admittance of the students and issued an order to the school board and superintendent to either admit the children to the public school most convenient to their homes or file an answer showing why they should not.

Arguing that students seeking to enroll at the school weren’t segregated on account of race, John T. Adams, attorney for the schools, attempted to show that Miguel Maestas and other students were denied enrollment in the city’s other schools because they were deficient in English speaking skills.

Adams argued that the students were “Caucasian” and denied that the school board and superintendent had excluded them from other schools in Alamosa because of their race.

The McKinney directory listed the “Mexican Preparatory School” as being at Ninth and Ross. There was no telephone number.

Still supportive of the school district, the Alamosa Independent Journal reported in January 1913 that the decision to segregate Mexican American children was “adopted several years ago by the directors, and it has been proven that it was the best system ever inaugurated in any school district” and that the “percentage of those Spanish American children who advance beyond the fourth grade has steadily increased.” The paper also reported that “last year’s advancement of scholars increased over 400 percent over the number of those advanced before the system was inaugurated five years ago, with practically the same attendance.

The paper claimed that school officials were “giving the children of the Spanish American families of this city advantages they have never enjoyed elsewhere” and also cautioned that “if the board is wrong they will simply have to go back to the old and far inferior system of educating the children of these citizens.”

In a defense document, Adams stated that the school was known as the “Preparatory School, but not the Mexican School” and denied that all “Mexican children or children of Mexican descent or any children whomsoever (sic) by reason of their race, or color or descent are of have been for more than two years last past or at any other time, obliged by order of these defendants, or any of them or by order of the Board of Education, so called or otherwise to attend the said preparatory school up to the fifth grade thereof, or at all, while other children were or are permitted to attend the school most convenient to their residence.”

He argued Miguel Maestas was denied admission to the North Side School because he lacked English skills and was academically unprepared.

Adams claimed Miguel had failed an English exam and that he was “behind in all of his classes and studies, and … unable to carry on the work thereof.” Miguel was also behind academically, said Adams, because his parents had “permitted” him to stay out of school for three months.

Miguel was kept out of school by his father because an organized walkout was part of the Mexican American parent protest against the segregated school.

Adams warned allowing non-English-speaking Mexican American children to attend one of the other schools in the district where teachers did not understand Spanish and the graded system of schools would be seriously injured and impaired if not altogether destroyed, and the advancement of educational development of the pupils of the said city would be thereby retarded, including not only those speaking the Spanish language but also those speaking only the English language.

The lawyer contended it was impossible “to provide for adequate teaching facilities for said pupils in more than one of the buildings in said city.” To “change the present system of instruction in said school district,” he concluded, “would result in great and irreparable injury and loss to said school district and tax payers thereof.”

Superintendent Thompson testified that Mexican American children were “put in a school by themselves because of their deficiency in the English language.” He testified no “American” children attended the school.

When board member J. H. Darling took the stand, Sullivan asked him whether he thought there was racial prejudice toward Mexicans in Alamosa and whether he believed that “public sentiment had not been in favor of segregating their children in the public schools.” Later, he admitted he “would never permit his children to attend school with the Mexicans” and “he was still of that mind.” In addition, he also told the court that “the school set aside for the Mexican children was at all times designated the Mexican School in the official records of the board.”

Maestas and Miguel were also put on the stand. The Register reported he “was timid and abashed by reason of the crowded court room.” However, Miguel “understood and answered the questions put him by counsel in English.” When defendants asked Miguel questions through an interpreter, “he responded in English before the interpreter could finish the questions.” Miguel told the court that he was “often made late for school by reason of waiting for trains to pass.” Other children were “put on the stand and answered readily in English the questions put to them by counsel.”

Another parent, Victor Gallegos, told the court that two of his children of school age “had been refused admission to the American school and that he had, rather than send them to the Mexican school, placed them in a convent in Denver.”

He said that he and his wife had spoken English to them since they were born and were well acquainted with the English language. Another parent, Efren Quintana, claimed the “majority of the children in the Mexican school spoke English as well as his children and that he could see no reason except that of race prejudice as to why they were segregated.” He maintained that the “great majority of the Mexican people wished to have their children attend the schools nearest to them without discrimination.”

Quintana also told the court that he had “never been in favor of a separate school” and that he had been a member of a committee that appeared before the school board with a petition signed by 180 Mexican heads of families asking for their ‘constitutional rights’ in the schools.”

The principal of the South Side School, now known as Boyd School, Miss Carrie Boyd, told the court that she was ordered “to send all Mexican children to the Mexican School.” Teachers from that school also testified. Miss Mary Lister said most of the children in her grades had a sufficient knowledge of the English to carry on the work in those grades.” The other teacher, Miss Loretta McGraw, said she spoke with “the children mostly in English and found that [was] the best way to teach them.”

Judge Holbrook was convinced that school officials had used the English language deficiency and the academic unpreparedness of some Mexican American children as a rationale to send them all to the Mexican School up to the fifth grade. He declared English-speaking Mexican American children had the right to attend public schools near their homes, or schools of their choice, in the Alamosa School District.

In his decision, Judge Holbrook noted the “school was built for their [the Mexican students’] benefit, and supplied with teachers especially selected, because of their ability to speak both English and Spanish.”

He ultimately rejected those arguments and decided in favor of Maestas. He found some of the Mexican American children “in the lower grades may be able, and doubtless are able, to speak English.”

Holbrook understood why “Spanish speaking people believe that their children are excluded from the two English speaking schools, upon account of race.” Rejecting the school board’s argument, he believed that this “feeling must be eradicated before the school can reach its greatest efficiency.” He did not think it was just to send English-speaking Mexican children to the Mexican School because he saw “evidence [that showed there were] children in different grades in the Mexican Primary School, who know enough English to understand instruction in the same grades in the other schools.” Thus, Holbrook stated that “in the opinion of the court … the only way to destroy this feeling of discontent and bitterness which has recently grown up, is to allow all children so prepared, to attend the school nearest them.”