Support builds for national historic site at Blackwell School

A vintage photo of the playground at the Blackwell School. The Blackwell School provided education to the Marfa students of Mexican descent from 1909 to 1965. Courtesy of Marfa and Presidio County Museum.

MARFA — Back in the early 2000s, Joe Cabezuela went with his wife to a school reunion in Presidio, where she grew up. It was a fun time, and Cabezuela started wondering if he could organize something similar for his former classmates in Marfa.

“I started feeling that nostalgia,” Cabezuela said. “I missed my old friends.” In July 2006, he organized his first informal school reunion at his house. Around 10 of his former classmates made it.

It wasn’t a typical reunion, though. Cabezuela and classmates were remembering their time at Blackwell School, a segregated school for Marfa’s Latino students.

Cabezuela finished Blackwell in eighth grade and moved on to Marfa High School, ultimately graduating in 1964 — just a year before courts desegregated the whole school system.

Cabezuela knows the history of the segregated school can be painful for some, but he wanted to see the former school preserved, both as a piece of his life story and as a reminder of the history of segregated Latino schools in Texas, which once dotted the borderland.

Over the years, he has learned more about the school’s troubled history — but at the time, “we didn’t know any better,” he said in a phone interview from El Paso on Monday. “That was our school — the Mexican school.”

Cabezuela’s informal school reunions soon morphed into the Blackwell School Alliance, a group with the goal of preserving the school’s history and what remains of the property.

Cabezuela no longer runs the group — he’s since moved to El Paso — but the project he started years ago continues to grow, adding supporters in Marfa and beyond. In December, the National Park Service put the Blackwell School on its National Register of Historic Places for “significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history,” as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. And a new letter-writing campaign hopes to see the school become a national historic site — ideally before the retirement of Congressman Will Hurd, who’s taken an interest in the project but who’s also leaving office soon.

“Blackwell School belongs in a national place of honor like the catalogue of outstanding American places,” Congressman Hurd said in a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel. “As one of the first schools in West Texas to educate Latinos, Blackwell School owns a unique piece of history.”

“For decades, local leaders have made efforts to preserve the site and I am proud to join them in this effort,” he added. “I currently represent eight national parks and historic sites — it is time to make Blackwell School number nine.”

As Cabezuela tells it, the Blackwell School Alliance came about more-or-less organically. After holding that first informal reunion at his house, he and others decided to have another get-together around the Marfa Lights Festival, when they figured more old-timers would be back in town.

Then Cabezuela started getting calls from other students who weren’t in his grade but nonetheless also wanted a reunion. Cabezuela expanded the get-togethers to any former students, and the groups started meeting at the Brown Recluse, what was then a coffee shop near the center of town.

Around the same time, Cabezuela started hearing rumors that Marfa ISD was selling the Blackwell School, possibly for use as an art gallery. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right,’” he recalled. After all, the property on South Abbot Street was “the only building left that will remind us of Blackwell.”

He started talking to the school board about maintaining and preserving the building. They ultimately agreed to lease it for 99 years for a nominal rent of $1 per year.

With that land deal, the Blackwell School Alliance was born. The initial goal, Cabezuela said, was to “make sure everybody knew that Blackwell was being saved.”

“That’s how we got started on the whole Blackwell deal — and then we kept going,” he said. “We had parades, dances, menudo breakfasts. We just didn’t quit.”

In 2016, Cabezuela decided to move to El Paso for health reasons. He passed off leadership of the Blackwell School Alliance to Gretel Enck, who’d recently moved to town and taken an interest in the project.

Enck had worked for the National Park Service since 2000, including a stint at Manzanar National Historic Site. Based in a remote part of California, Manzanar is perhaps the best-known of the Japanese internment camps from the World War II area.

“That really cemented my interest in civil rights work,” Enck said of her time at Manzanar. She sees the role of the National Park Service not just as protecting natural wonders, but of preserving the “maybe less pleasant aspects of our history,” from internment to segregation.

When Cabezuela first asked Enck to become the new Blackwell School president, “I said no,” Enck recalled, laughing. “He wore me down.”

“I thank the Lord for Gretel showing up,” Cabezuela said. “She’s very well-educated, and she knows what she’s doing.”

The next few years were big for the Blackwell School. Enck — who later started working at the Fort Davis Historic Site — thought the Blackwell School deserved similar recognition as a part of West Texas history.

The National Park Service, without explicitly mentioning Blackwell, was starting to think the same. Around that same time, it commissioned an American Latino Heritage Theme Study to examine how it could better commemorate American Latino history.

Among its findings, Enck said, was that it had “only one site that speaks to Latino and Hispanic culture.” But that site — the Cesar E. Chávez National Monument and Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz National Historic Landmark in Keene, California — was narrowly tailored around the struggles of Latino farmworkers in the 20th century.

Last year, the Blackwell School Alliance succeeded in getting the property on the National Register of Historic Places. It also started a new partnership with Marfa ISD, with the goal of getting students learning about the legacy of local school segregation.

Now, the alliance hopes to see the property become a national historic site, which would officially make it property of the National Park Service. They say they’ve found an ally in retiring Congressman Will Hurd, who could make the move official with legislation — though those efforts have stalled recently. Enck cites a number of factors, from the Great American Outdoors Act to “general COVID delays.”

Still, the project is moving along. It recently racked up letters of support from the City of Marfa, which described the site as telling “an important local, personal story,” and from Marfa ISD, who called the property “deeply entwined with the Marfa school district.” Oscar Aguero, the superintendent of Marfa ISD, had a grandparent that attended the school.

The Blackwell School Alliance also found an ally in the National Parks Conservation Association, a group that pushes for community involvement in national-park decisions. “We’re the citizen voice for the National Park Service,” said Dallas Kelley-Kerr, a senior manager for community affairs at the group.

Kelley-Kerr has worked with the Blackwell School Alliance on the project. She thinks the project is a natural fit for a national historic site and has a “great chance” of becoming one.

Like Enck, Kelley-Kerr pointed out that the only current national historic site dedicated to American Latino history is the Chavez landmark focused on farmworkers. “That alone doesn’t represent an entire longstanding culture in this part of the world,” she said. And as coronavirus health disparities and police killings throw topics of injustice into stark relief, “I think this is one of the most prescient times in our history,” she added.

These days, Enck is evangelical about the goal of turning Blackwell into a national historic site. She and other Blackwell School Alliance members are starting a letter- and postcard-writing campaign, encouraging everyday Marfans to back the project. She also recently spoke at a Marfa City Council meeting, where she outlined some of the benefits and encouraged city leaders to show their support.

For one thing, Enck says, research shows that for every $1 the federal government spends on park sites, it brings around $4 into the community. That money could create new jobs. The site would bring in new tourists, or keep existing tourists around for longer. And then there’s “the added bonus of being able to share a nationally significant story with the wider world,” she said.

Cabezuela, the former Blackwell student, knows that not all of his old classmates want to see the building stay. He thinks it’s because the memories are painful for some people — and he understands that. He and other students relied on hand-me-downs from the white schools in Marfa — including, he says, textbooks with missing pages. He remembers the young girl who got yelled at one day, only to never return to school. And when he got to Marfa High School, it was a tough adjustment, as he felt like a second-class citizen. “They would show more attention to the white kids,” he said.

Still, Cabezuela has plenty of fond memories of Blackwell, many of them involving playing sports with the other students. And more importantly, the whole experience from the good to the bad was part of his life story.

Cabezuela supports the idea of turning Blackwell into a national historic site. He said he plans to write a postcard.

“That’s our heritage,” he said. “That’s our history. And it should be there, so our kids can go through there and remember what really happened.”