Blackwell School National Historic Act clears US House of Representatives

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After a pivotal vote last week in the U.S. House of Representatives, Marfa’s Blackwell School is one step closer to becoming a National Park Service site. The bill to nationally recognize and protect the school cleared the House with 417 “yea” votes and a paltry 8 “nays.” “The Blackwell School is an important piece of history for West Texas and many Mexican Americans across the country, and we are ready to share it with the world,” said Tony Gonzalez, the Big Bend region’s congressional representative, on the House floor. 

Gonzalez explained in his testimony before Congress that the Blackwell School operated from 1909 to 1965, educating Mexican American elementary students from Marfa separately from their white peers. Before the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, it was legally mandatory for African American students to be educated separately, but school districts could choose whether Mexican American students should also be segregated. Marfa’s Blackwell School stayed open for ten years after legal school segregation was outlawed under a practice known as de facto segregation — there were no laws on the books, but the school continued to operate as it always had. 

Gonzalez and fellow Texas Congressman Filemón Vela introduced HR 4706, or the Blackwell School National Historic Act, back in July. The National Parks Conservation Association, which has been advising the Blackwell School Alliance on the process of applying for federal recognition, originally speculated that the legislation would be bundled with similar bills, but the Blackwell bill ultimately passed the House on its own. If the standalone bill passes the Senate and is signed into law by President Biden, the historic schoolhouse on Waco Street will become a National Park Service historic site, with all the additional funding, protection and publicity that entails. 

“I think this is really resounding with people,” said Gretel Enck, president of the Blackwell School Alliance, the nonprofit organization working to protect the school’s legacy today. “On the floor of the House before the vote, there was a congresswoman from New Mexico who made a heartfelt message of support and talked about how she had gone to a school like the Blackwell School. And on the other side of the aisle, a Republican representative from Arkansas stood up and supported it and said we need to better understand American history.” 

For Enck and other supporters of the Blackwell School, following the nuts and bolts of congressional procedure hasn’t always been easy. Luckily, support for the bill from congressmen Vela and Gonzalez in the House and John Cornyn in the Senate has left the alliance relatively confident that the Blackwell School bill will have its day on the Senate floor early next year. “Cornyn’s people were telling us that he was really intent on seeing it happen this calendar year — at this point, we’re down to the wire, and I just don’t know that that’s feasible,” Enck explained. “Honestly, I’m watching the Senate schedule every day this week to see if it’s going to make it in or not. But I’m so heartened by how bipartisan this has been. Everyone wants a bill like this, a bill that everyone agrees is important.” 

“As our country continues to grapple with urgent, endemic issues of race, identity and institutional discrimination, we need to act now to protect places like the Blackwell School so the important stories of our past can be told now, and for generations,” National Parks Conservation Association President Theresa Pierno said in a press release. “The stories of hardship that Latino students faced at Blackwell and their resilience in the face of discrimination have so much to teach us about America’s past, present and future. That is why we have been working to ensure this story is preserved within the National Park System.”

As the Blackwell School bill gains momentum in Washington, Enck hopes that the publicity will support the group’s efforts to protect the structure and expand programming for visitors. “I think there’s a dam that’s about to break,” she said. “If this passes the Senate and the president signs it and we get picked up on national news, there’s going to be a lot more people saying, ‘Holy cow, there’s this whole other piece of American history that we didn’t know about.’”

The alliance is currently raising money for a number of projects to protect and preserve the historic schoolhouse and its collections, including replastering the adobe, installing a fire-resistant roof and replacing entrances and restrooms to be ADA-compliant and accessible for all visitors. The group estimates that the total bill will be $1.4 million. Their GoFundMe page has been lit up with many local small dollar donations. “So many people have donated, and that’s really exciting.”

The fundraiser’s success will hinge on the Blackwell School Alliance’s ability to attract bigger donors, like a recent check from the Permian Basin Area Foundation for $25,000. The Permian Basin Area Foundation is a Midland-based charitable fund that seeks to “enrich quality of life in West Texas communities,” according to its website. “I give them so much credit for supporting us early and generously,” Enck said. “I can’t say enough about them.”

For Blackwell School alumni like Mario Rivera, who attended from 1950 to 1957, watching the community come together to protect Marfa’s past has been an emotional process. “Man, it’s a great feeling — a feeling I thought we’d never achieve,” said Rivera, who currently serves as the Blackwell School Alliance’s vice president. “It’s a chance to preserve all that we have worked hard for.”

Over the years, Rivera has watched the town of Marfa grow and change around the adobe schoolhouse on Waco Street. When low-income housing units were built next door, many in the community worried that the historic structure would get demolished. “Here in Marfa, old buildings automatically came down for lack of maintenance,” he explained. “It’s a good thing the building was owned by [Marfa Independent School District]. They made some changes to it, but there wasn’t much damage done.”

Rivera hopes that national interest in the site and the prospect of a new National Park Service unit will make the Blackwell School a gathering place for locals and for visitors hoping to learn more about Mexican-American history. “It’s for the good of the whole community,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea for this place to be a place where people will be united, not segregated.”