Reps. Hurd, Vela file bill to make Blackwell a National Historic Site

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

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. representatives Will Hurd and Filemon Vela Jr. plan to file a bill to make the former Blackwell School in Marfa a National Historic Site and place it under the supervision of the National Park Service.

The Blackwell School — which served Latino students from its inception in 1909 until court-ordered desegregation in 1964 — is one of the best preserved and last remaining mementos of an era when Latinos in Texas were segregated into separate schools. Though such schools once dotted the Texas borderlands, just a few — including Blackwell — remain today, and most or all of the others have been repurposed. Blackwell’s preservation is in large part thanks to the Blackwell School Alliance, a group founded by former students in 2006 with the goal of keeping the site as a place of reflection and education.

Chief among those former students was Joe Cabezuela, who graduated from eighth grade at Blackwell in 1964 and later went on to found the alliance. In an interview from El Paso this week, he called the news of Hurd’s bill “just tremendous” and thanked Gretel Enck, the current president of the Blackwell School Alliance, for her work on the issue.

“I believe this has all come about because of Gretel and her board,” he said.

Cabezuela acknowledged that some Marfans — including former Blackwell students — might prefer to forget this painful chapter of local history. But “it was there,” he said of the school. “It happened. It needs to be told.”

Besides, Cabezuela added, the story of school segregation at Blackwell is still relevant for the present moment. “Today, [Latino] kids don’t go through what we did,” he said. “But there’s still a little bit of prejudice going on.”

In a statement announcing the bill, Rep. Hurd, a Republican representing the region, described Blackwell as “a reminder of de facto segregation throughout the mid-twentieth century.” After all, he noted, it was the “only educational institution in Marfa, Texas serving the Latino community for more than fifty years.”

“We have a responsibility as a nation to care for these places and ensure the history they represent is told,” Hurd said in the statement. “Blackwell might represent a dark time in our nation’s past, but we must not shy away from our past so future generations can learn from it.”

Hurd’s co-sponsor on the bill — Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat representing the 34th district in South Texas — agreed, describing the site as an “academic and cultural cornerstone” from an era when “the practice of ‘separate but equal’ dominated education and social systems.”

“This designation will help preserve and maintain the property,” Vela added, “so that folks across Texas and the nation can visit and learn the history and experiences of Mexican-American families.”

Though the Blackwell School Alliance has been around for more than a decade, the group in recent months has seen its stature grow amid national conversations on racism and injustice. In December, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, the site was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its “significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history,” according to an application to the National Park Service.

Among other details, that application also recounted how former Blackwell students participated in a ritual known as “burying Mr. Spanish.” Students wrote “I will not speak Spanish” on slips of paper, placed them in a coffin and buried them in a ceremony near the school flagpole — a symbolic exercise intended to separate schoolkids from their Latino and Spanish-language heritage.

This year, support for preserving Blackwell has only continued to grow. After the Blackwell School Alliance in August announced a letter- and postcard-writing campaign to support making the landmark a national historic site, around 200 postcards poured in from supporters.

A number of prominent local institutions have also supported the initiative — including Marfa Independent School District, Marfa City Council, the Judd Foundation, Ballroom Marfa and Friends of Ruidosa Church. Oscar Aguero, the superintendent at Marfa ISD, had a grandparent who attended the school and has been a vocal advocate for preserving the site.

Gretel Enck, the current president of the Blackwell School Alliance, acknowledges that memories of Blackwell are painful for some residents. But in previous interviews, she’s stressed a national designation could help Marfa — not only by preserving an important piece of local history, but also by attracting more history buffs and tourist dollars to the region. (Enck, who currently works at the Fort Davis Historic Site, declined to comment on Hurd’s specific bill, citing laws that prevent federal employees like her from commenting on pending legislation.)

Besides, as a former employee at the Manzanar National Historic Site in California — one of the most infamous sites of World War II-era Japanese internment — Enck has stressed it’s important to preserve the “maybe less pleasant aspects of our history.” Just one current National Park Site “speaks to Latino and Hispanic culture,” Enck told The Big Bend Sentinel last month, citing a study from the National Parks Service. But that site — the Cesar E. Chávez National Monument and Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz National Historic Landmark in Keene, California — is narrowly tailored around the struggles of Latino farmworkers in the 20th century.

Then, of course, there’s Rep. Hurd himself. A middle-of-the-road Republican who announced his retirement from Congress last year, Hurd has used his remaining months in office to push for expanding parks and landmarks in West Texas.

Just last month, for example, Hurd introduced H.R. 8093, a bill intended to make it easier for Big Bend National Park to expand by buying land from willing landowners. The bill was introduced August 22 but has not yet seen a vote, according to congressional records.

Supporters of preserving the Blackwell School were thrilled by news of the latest bill, including the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent group that pushes for community involvement in national parks decisions and has advocated on behalf of the Blackwell School Alliance.

In a statement, Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the group, said the school “should serve as a reminder of the institutionalized racism embedded in our nation’s history.” And while she acknowledged the history of the site was one of injustice, she stressed that “it would also teach [visitors] about resilience.”

“Like so many stories in America, Blackwell’s is one of both pain and pride,” Pierno added in her statement. “Who better to tell that story than the National Park Service?”

Also celebrating the news: the Blackwell School Alliance itself. In a statement, Daniel Hernandez, a Marfa local and an advisor to the alliance, described Blackwell School as an “authentic space for a much-needed conversation” around injustice and a place “to engage in dialogue, education, connection, and healing — in Marfa and far beyond.”

“More than a decade ago, former students made a pact to protect the Blackwell School they knew and loved,” Hernandez added. “They wanted to remember the good times and to share pride in the education they received. Yet there is no way to talk about the Blackwell School without understanding the discrimination people of Mexican descent have long faced in West Texas: divided neighborhoods, whites-only businesses and de facto segregation within our school system.”

This is a breaking story. Check next week’s paper for more developments.