Blackwell School bill passes US Senate 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On May 19, the U.S. Senate passed a bill establishing a National Park Service unit commemorating the Blackwell School, a former segregated school for Mexican Americans in Marfa. The bill is awaiting passage by the House of Representatives, but after a few minor tweaks, boosters believe it will be successful. 

Texas has a rich and diverse history, and it’s time for this piece of our story to receive proper recognition,” Senator John Cornyn, who introduced the bill alongside Alex Padilla of California, wrote in a statement. “I introduced a bipartisan bill to establish the Blackwell School as a National Historic site, making it one of the few national park sites that specifically commemorates Latino history and culture.”

Blackwell School operated from 1909 to 1965 and at one point served over 600 students in multiple buildings before integrating with Marfa Public Schools, which before 1965 only educated white children. Students were prohibited from speaking Spanish.

In 1954, the same year as the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, teachers at the school held a funeral for “Mr. Spanish” and instructed students to bury slips of paper with Spanish-language words written on them. Segregated education would continue in Marfa for 11 more years, allowed because it wasn’t legally enforced — it was just what the community expected. 

The journey to the Senate floor has been over 16 years in the making. Blackwell School Alliance — the organization currently tending the grounds of the historic site on Abbott Street — was formed in 2006 by community members who had attended the school. Three years ago, President Gretel Enck ran into then-Congressman Will Hurd in a coffee shop in Alpine. 

“He was really tuned into national parks because he had so many national parks in his district,” Enck explained. “Looking back, things don’t normally happen that fast.” 

After years of hard work, Enck received a text message from a staffer at Senator John Cornyn’s office announcing the good news. The only major change that will need to happen before deliberation in the House of Representatives is clearer language demarcating the boundaries of the proposed historic site. 

“We don’t expect that there will be any disagreement in the House because it doesn’t change the bill, it just clarifies the bill,” Enck explained.

Enck has been getting updates from Congressman Tony Gonzales, who will be shepherding the resolution through the House with fellow Texas Rep. Filemon Vela. For now, timing is up in the air. “It really is just a matter of getting back on their schedule,” said Enck. 

The passage of the bill isn’t the only good news the Blackwell School Alliance has celebrated recently: a fundraiser over the winter for major upgrades to the historic structure raised almost $100,000. “The first step is going to be the architect’s build plan, and that’s slightly on hold because we’re so close to being designated that we want to make sure we’re doing it in partnership with the National Park Service and considering all of their requirements regarding historic preservation,” said Enck.

In Enck’s words, “success breeding success” has also attracted major media attention: reporters from the L.A. Times profiled the group’s efforts back in February, leading to well-wishes and curiosity from people all around the country. “The more people hear about it, the more people want to cover it,” she said. 

The next step will be hosting a community meeting, tentatively scheduled for Sunday, July 17. At the meeting, Enck and the rest of the Blackwell School board will meet with Marfa residents to discuss all that having a new park service unit in town entails. 

“One of the things that we have on our list to talk about at the July meeting is, ‘What does it do to the neighborhood?’” said Enck. “Obviously, there’s going to be increased traffic around where the Blackwell School is, so how do we maximize the benefits and minimize any negative impacts that that might cause?” 

She expects the positives will far outweigh the negatives. “One interesting statistic is that for every dollar that the National Park Service spends in communities, there is a $4 payoff in terms of tourism resit, revenue and jobs and so forth,” she explained. “So there’s a real economic benefit to communities. Just putting the stamp of the National Park Service on the site is going to bring a whole new kind of heritage tourism to Marfa.”

At her day job at Fort Davis National Historic Site — another local park service unit — 50,000 visitors a year flock to learn about the region’s military, African American, and Indigenous history. “A lot of those people that might not be interested in art are still going to divert to Marfa because they’re national park fans,” she said. 

For Enck and the rest of the Blackwell School Alliance, centering Mexican American history in Marfa is worth the hassle of trying to pass legislation. Legislators and observers across the country agree. “There are so many chapters of American history that have gone unseen, unheard, and unacknowledged,” wrote National Parks Conservation Association Theresa Pierno in a press release.

“Despite the difficult history connected to the Blackwell School, today is a day of joy and celebration that these students’ stories will soon be told by our country’s greatest storytellers at the National Park Service,” Pierno continued. “The students of Blackwell deserve no less.The Blackwell National Historic Site will soon shed light on an often-overlooked injustice in American history and will be an important step forward for including Latino stories at our parks.”