Community members, alumni gather to exchange views over the Blackwell School’s pending National Historic Site designation 

The Blackwell School Alliance and the National Parks Conservation Association hosted a workshop this weekend in which Blackwell alumni, descendents, members of the alliance and the community discussed the historic school becoming a national park site. From left, Lionel Salgado, Sam Cobos and Kathleen Walstrom. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA — In a community meeting held last Sunday at the USO Building, Blackwell School alumni, descendents, members of the Blackwell School Alliance, staff representing the National Parks Conservation Association, and more came together to discuss the history, challenges and concerns associated with the school being designated as a National Historic Site  — a recognition which has yet to be signed into law. 

Open from 1909 to 1965, the Blackwell School was a segregated school for Mexican American students, which, unlike similar sites across the state, is still standing and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019. Its proponents are looking toward the future of the one-room adobe schoolhouse entering the federal park system, allowing it to serve as an important reminder of the contemporary experience of Mexican Americans in the greater U.S. for future generations.

“Everybody that is here today is making history,” said Blackwell alumnus Sam Cobos of the occasion, addressing the gathered crowd of around 40 people. 

After lunch from Convenience West and before kicking off roundtable group activities, the president of the Blackwell School Alliance, Gretel Enck, welcomed participants and provided an update on the building’s designation. The formal designation of the school as a National Historic Site passed both the House and Senate, she said — but due to an amendment to the bill, it wasn’t quite across the finish line. She said they are hopeful the political will and bipartisan support of congressional leaders backing the bill will see the president’s signature mark the final approval sometime this summer but encouraged everyone to reach out to Texas Representative Tony Gonzales to urge the process along. 

University of Texas El Paso professor Dr. Frank Pérez, author of Deconstructing Eurocentric Tourism and Heritage Narratives in Mexican American Communities, acted as the meeting’s facilitator, introducing all who gathered to the concept of cultural heritage tourism. Pérez said it is important that the future Blackwell site share the stories and voices of as many people as possible while addressing the difficulties and ramifications of the “separate but equal” doctrine. 

Pérez prompted the various small groups to talk over who they imagined visiting the Blackwell School and the main takeaways they want guests to glean from the site. At each table, groups started conversations by sharing their memories of Blackwell. Alumni shared uplifting recollections of school reunions as well as more painful stories of corporal punishment and discrimination. Many touched on the repression of the Spanish language — in 1954, students were barred from speaking Spanish on campus — and impacts that had on their lives.

The collective memories were full of emotional highs and lows; feelings of repression were coupled with feelings of gratitude for kind teachers and athletic and band programs. Newer Marfa residents shared their first impressions of the Blackwell School site and emphasized the need for further education on the history of segregated Mexican American schools, recalling no mention of such history in their textbooks growing up. 

Alumni present represented different eras of the school, with Lionel Salgado, who attended from 1941 to 1951, sitting alongside Cobos, who attended Blackwell at the tailend of its operation in the sixties and recalled how the civil rights movement influenced his perception of his school experience.

Blackwell alumnus Lionel Salgado at last week’s community meeting sporting his new Blackwell School Marfa, Texas T-shirt which reads “Where the past is honored, the future is served, and whispered stories are told loud.” Photo by Mary Cantrell.

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Cobos said the work he and others have put in throughout their lifetime to educate people about the history of the Blackwell School as well as the discrimination and unequal treatment of people of color was finally paying off, with the pending National Historic Site designation promising to lift up the story of Blackwell and similar institutions, reaching a larger audience than ever before. 

“If you don’t work to put [stories of racial discrimination] out there it will disappear, and then we’re at risk of things like that happening again because people don’t understand,” said Cobos. “Making Blackwell a National Historic Site opens the doors to spread the stories to the whole nation and other countries. You can’t ask for a better platform.” 

After a short break in which attendees snacked on a festive Blackwell-themed cake, further discussion ensued, focusing on the increase in tourism that the National Historic Site would bring to Marfa and compounding effects to the neighborhood experience, traffic and more. 

Some residents raised concerns about the lack of public bathrooms and other services for tourists and how to provide more parking for Blackwell School visitors, who could be patronizing the site seven days a week. Others worried the formal designation of the site would cause their property taxes to increase. Most agreed the influx of school field trips and history buffs visiting Blackwell would be beneficial for the local businesses and hotels. Some brainstormed ideas for how to fold the art community into the mix and ensure signage around town pointed people to visit Blackwell. 

A primary theme was how increased visitation to the Blackwell School as a result of it becoming a National Historic Site would help diversify the town’s predominant arts tourism. Visitors to Blackwell would be able to formulate a more complete history of the town of Marfa by gaining exposure to the town’s earlier history as opposed to just the traditionally celebrated “Judd era” of the 1970s and beyond.

Many brought up the need to present a comprehensive, rather than siloed history of the Blackwell School which touches on current issues, like the role of Marfa’s railroad tracks as racial and socioeconomic boundaries, for example. Some said the Blackwell site should touch on the area’s broader cultural heritage, including its border and military influences. Underscoring the need for the preservation of Marfa’s heritage, one Blackwell alumnus expressed their disappointment at the lack of meeting attendance among the town’s younger populations. 

A community meeting about the Blackwell School’s forthcoming designation as a national park site was held this past weekend at the USO, with attendees enjoying slices of cake between discussion sessions. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

Cary Dupuy, Texas Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), whose organization has been assisting the alliance throughout the three-year process of becoming a federally-listed historic site, said the recognition of the Blackwell School would be a monumental step in addressing the modern history of America’s Latinx population, whose stories have traditionally been underrepresented within the national park system — the only other similar site being the César E. Chávez National Monument in California. Segregated schools for Mexican American students existed throughout Texas and the Big Bend region, including the Hidalgo Ward School in Marathon and the Centennial School in Alpine. 

“We’re so excited to be here today. We thought it was just an absolutely fabulous conversation to continue to lift up the Blackwell experience and the Blackwell stories,” said Dupuy in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel after the event. “This is a story that’s relevant to not just Marfa, or Texas, but all across the Southwest.”

“This has opened the door for us to interpret the Hispanic and Latino experience across the country,” added Kyle Groetzinger, communications manager with the NPCA. 

Groetzinger said presenting the diversity of stories and varied experiences of Blackwell students at the site will be a challenge, but they intend to work with the alliance to present the history in a complex and detailed way. Unlike some older historic sites, the Blackwell School has surviving alumni who are able to share their stories firsthand, he said. 

Cristóbal López, an intern with the NPCA, is working to archive previously collected oral histories and conduct more interviews, in both English and Spanish, to add to the archive. He said oral histories are some of the most important historical archives a site can maintain, offering more personal and vivid recollections of the past compared to print material. 

“It’s about the people who were there, it’s themselves, it’s their voices. And that just adds an entirely different element than just reading a report or a letter,” said López. “Being able to actually hear their voices and emotions.”  

Dupuy noted the process of the Blackwell School becoming a National Historic Site is only just beginning and the NPCA will continue to work with the National Park Service to address community needs and concerns for the site. 

“We are so close to getting actually designated. But getting that signature by the president is really just a start,” said Dupuy. “As a national park site, this will be like all other national parks across the country who need funding, staffing and support.” 

Enck wrapped up the meeting by thanking all who participated and ensuring them that the Blackwell School Alliance, which was formed in 2006, would remain intact in the future, likely shifting their focus from National Historic Site designation to education and community outreach. A friends group which focuses on fundraising could also be formed, she said. The successful transferring of the Blackwell School into a National Historic Site hinges on the steadfast commitment from the local community, she said. While all parties align on the need for historic preservation of the Blackwell School, its alumni, descendents and advocates — not the National Park Service — truly know the ins and outs of its history, she said. 

“That is why, as much as we can moving forward and as many opportunities as we have, we need to stay involved and make sure we help steer the ship as the park service goes forward,” said Enck. “Change can be hard. Even if it’s good.” 

To call Texas Representative Tony Gonzales and relay support for the Blackwell School becoming a National Historic Site call (202) 225-4511.