The Blackwell School: The scholarship of Dr. Aurelio Saldaña sheds light on the school’s histor

Telling the story of the Blackwell School often feels like playing history detective. The Blackwell School Alliance spent efforts in the past investigating how and when the adobe schoolhouse was constructed. These days we regularly learn more about the historical context surrounding the school. Scholars like Dr. Aurelio Saldaña contribute to the conversation with new discoveries and insightful connections. 

I met Aurelio Saldaña in 2016 when he was a student at UT El Paso and the Alliance was developing an oral history project with one of his professors. Saldaña was researching segregated schools of the rural borderlands for his PhD. He and fellow students visited Marfa, met with alumni and learned about the Marfa version of a “Mexican” school. Over the years, Saldaña returned to Marfa to dive into the library’s Junior Historian Files and investigate the Marfa and Presidio County Museum. He remarked on one visit about the significant amount of material — documents, memories, photographs — available here to learn about the Blackwell School. So much so that in the end, Saldaña wrote his dissertation largely on the segregated school history in Marfa and its namesake Principal Jesse Blackwell. 

Saldaña grew up in Fort Hancock in the late 1970s and early 1980s, hearing rumors about a past where ethnic Mexican kids attended a different school than Anglo kids. He eventually confirmed this looking through old yearbooks. Even more eye opening was when he found out this was not an isolated phenomenon. After years spent going back and forth between getting higher education and teaching in Fort Hancock, he paired his curiosity with scholarship to study the Blackwell School.

Saldaña looked at the historical record of segregated schools in rural areas from a perspective of socialization. He examined the process of Americanization on students in the United States in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, specifically ethnic Mexican students. He affirmed that Anglo American patriarchal efforts at segregating ethnic Mexicans from Anglo students were systematic, and deliberate, efforts to instill “American” identity into the ethnic Mexican students. 

From the opening of the Mexican Ward School at the corner of Abbott and Waco streets in 1909 until Jesse Blackwell arrived as principal in 1922, the students, as recalled by alumni and teachers themselves, were receiving an “adequate” education. Once Blackwell arrived, though, it appears that pedagogical expectations were raised several notches. In addition to the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic, education came to include American cultural ideals. Not only was the English language enforced, but a holistic approach of socialization was implemented, including a rigorous academic curriculum, athletic competition and extracurricular activities such as Anglo-oriented musical programs and patriotic event participation.

Jesse Blackwell’s economically-strapped and hardship-filled background in Rusk County provided the new principal with the needed experience and grit to engage the situation at the Ward School. He grew up on a farm, the oldest of 12 children, and took on added responsibilities as a teenager as his father became disabled. Saldaña suggests this background led Blackwell to exhibit leadership with significant levels of authoritarianism and benevolence — tough love, if you will. Blackwell’s approach of rigor combined with a heartfelt appreciation of his students, and by extension the approach of Mexican school faculty under his leadership, prepared ethnic Mexican children to better negotiate an often unaccepting and even violent Anglo American society.

The experience of the segregated schools cannot be fully characterized as detrimental or “negative.” Although there were instances where the ethnic Mexican students suffered maltreatment, received less-than-adequate education and endured substandard resources, it must also be acknowledged that there were positive effects stemming from the socialization received by these students. In Marfa, teachers at the Ward School were known to go out of their way to provide supplies and textbooks in the under-funded classrooms — providing rides, bringing reading materials from home, offering after-hours tutoring, and buying their own first aid supplies. 

Saldaña argues that one can only understand the full spectrum of the Blackwell School experience by listening to the actual historical actors themselves. Firsthand accounts shine a light on the cultural conflicts that occurred. The lived experiences of ethnic Mexican students enrolled in the Presidio County education system, in both Marfa and other areas of the Southwest, offer glimpses of the day-to-day negotiations these children made. 

The byproduct of a successful education in democratic ideals impacted students. A significant number of ethnic Mexicans across the country, many of whom were educated in segregated ward schools, demanded accessibility to all the rights, privileges and responsibilities they had learned about in those segregated schools. 

Dr. Saldaña finished his dissertation in May of last year and hopes to make it into a book. He applauds the designation of our new national historic site. “It is about time that this part of American history has been brought to the forefront.” He predicts interested parties from within the community — like himself — will want to research even deeper and expand on this history because the detective work is never done.

Saldaña also applauds the resilience of the people of Marfa. He wants to learn more about the descendants of the many fascinating families he read about in historical documents –– the faces, stories, personalities and dreams. “This was not just a project for my dissertation, it is a passion that I really hold close to my heart and I am truly grateful I have gotten the opportunity to learn a tiny bit about your wonderful community. Gracias Marfa!”

This begins a monthly column about Blackwell School history and memories. Gretel Enck is a longtime volunteer for the Blackwell School Alliance.