Marfa students to learn about Blackwell School with new partnership

Blackwell graduate Mario Rivera shares memories of his school days with Marfa ISD 7th graders. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Pfeiffer

MARFA — Marfa Independent School District is over 90 percent Hispanic. But, just a few decades ago, most of those students probably wouldn’t have attended Marfa schools at all.

Instead, they would have gone to the Blackwell School, a segregated school for Hispanic students on the city’s south side. Although state law didn’t enforce segregation between Anglo and Hispanic students, many school districts — like Marfa’s — chose to do so, anyway.

The school dates back to the late 1800s and was renamed after longtime principal Jesse Blackwell in 1940. An adobe schoolhouse, which still stands, was built in 1909. It closed in 1965, after laws and court rulings in the Civil Rights Era forced Marfa ISD to integrate.

The school taught hundreds of children up to the 9th grade, according to the website of the Blackwell School Alliance, a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving and remembering the school. At Blackwell, students were asked to only speak English, and “Spanish words written on slips of paper were buried on the grounds in a mock funeral ceremony,” according to the website.

Despite its prominent role in Marfa history, today some residents — including schoolchildren — have little connection to the place. When the seventh graders at Marfa ISD visited last week, only one student said he’d been before.

“There’s this lack of knowledge about what the Blackwell school was for, what it represented, and how it fits into the history of the United States,” said Michael Wallens, a board member at the Blackwell School Alliance. He suspects that, for some elders of Marfa school kids, the memories might just be too painful.

The visit was part of a new partnership between Marfa ISD and the alliance, which hopes to raise awareness about the school and its place in the history of Marfa. It’s a piece of a broader education campaign by the Blackwell School Alliance, which has also sponsored block parties and put up archival photographs around town.

Last Tuesday, Marfa’s seventh-graders visited the school. They explored the school, asked former students about their experiences and did some journaling. Wallens, who was in attendance, wasn’t sure how students took the experience — if it was painful or rewarding or both. “I really can’t tell you,” he said. “They were quiet.”

Still, he could tell that some students were trying to come to a more personal understanding of the school.

“It was interesting: A number of them asked former students if they knew their grandmother or grandfather,” he added.  “Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn’t. [The students] were trying to make that connection.”

Wallens and other alliance board members hope to continue expanding the program, including to other grades. One idea: to have the kids spend a week of instruction at Blackwell, so they can get a more immersive experience. They’re working with graduate students at Sul Ross State University to develop a curriculum.

Oscar Aguero, superintendent of Marfa ISD, told The Big Bend Sentinel that he’s excited for the program.  “I’m a history major,” he said. “People’s stories are always important,” he added, in helping “kids find out where they came from.”

Those kids once included Aguero himself, whose grandmother went to the school through third grade.

Asked why his grandmother dropped out while still in elementary school, Aguero attributed the decision more to gender than ethnicity — noting that his great-uncle went there through eight grade. Besides, “she had more fun playing at the creek,” he added.

He isn’t totally sure, though. They didn’t talk about Blackwell much. He can only remember talking to her about the school five or six times. And Aguero suspects they mostly talked about it because he chose education as a career.