Blackwell School Alliance looks ahead to historic site establishment 

Blackwell School alumni gathered for a group photo at last Saturday’s block party to commemorate the recent National Historic Site designation of the segregated three-room adobe schoolhouse which served Mexican American students from 1909 to 1965. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA — Alumni, elected officials and community members gathered last weekend at the Blackwell School for a festive community block party to celebrate the site’s designation as a National Historic Site. 

“The Blackwell School is joining the ranks of places like the Statue of Liberty, the National Mall, Big Bend and Yosemite,” said incoming Blackwell School Alliance President Daniel Hernandez. “Today, the Blackwell School takes its rightful place as a fixture of American history.” 

The block party also represented the passing of the baton from the Blackwell School Alliance, a group originally formed in 2007 with the goal of preserving the building and creating a museum, to the National Park Service, which will soon take over management of the site. Hernandez said locals will soon become accustomed to seeing the NPS rangers, now members of the Marfa community. 

Marfa’s Blackwell School is now one of 420+ national parks located across the United States. The site is in the process of transferring hands from local organization the Blackwell School Alliance to the National Parks Service. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

“They’re going to help us tell the story of Blackwell and help put together what this site should look like for those future generations that are going to be here long after we’re all gone,” said Hernandez. 

To that end, the NPS has allocated $265,000 in funding to go towards the maintenance of the Blackwell School for fiscal year 2024. The funds will cover basic facility needs as well as initial costs towards establishing the park, said David Larson, superintendent of the nearby Fort Davis National Historic Site, who is one of four staff members taking the lead on the Blackwell project on behalf of NPS. The funds will cover the hiring of a site manager “to provide leadership and supervision of park operations,” per the NPS budget, and a park guide “to be responsible for the day-to-day activities of the new park.” 

Larson said Blackwell is receiving start-up funds somewhat faster than other new NPS sites, partly due to its inclusion in an initiative to increase representation of underserved communities on public lands and “rapidly initiate unit start up” of those sites. 

“The priority of getting funding for this park — there’s been a lot of support for it. The support is seen right there in writing: $265,000,” said Larson. 

In addition to $265,00 in start-up funds, a key next step for the Blackwell School NHS will be the development of a foundation document, said Larson, a planning document which will outline the park’s purpose, themes, interpretive and public messaging and more.

Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

This past January, an architect and NPS maintenance management specialist visited the Blackwell School to assess the building for any structural emergencies, but found nothing that required immediate attention, said Larson. However, a five-year outline regarding infrastructure issues will be developed. He said there were a “spectrum of opportunities” relating to the visitor experience and accessibility of the site –– including restrooms, lighting, sidewalks, and more –– that will be assessed within the next year. 

“There’s a lot of brainstorming, a lot of scoping and planning, I should say, to do with respect to how people move through the building,” said Larson. “What’s the interpretive look inside the building? Is anything going to change at all?”

The three-room adobe schoolhouse was originally built in 1909, and a band hall was added on at some point before the school’s closure in 1965. The over 100-year-old structure has been through several alterations in the past, and the NPS may work to bring the building back to its original form, rebuilding adobe walls or the belltowner that once topped the structure, for example, said Larson. 

“How did the school look in the 19-teens or 1920s? What is the experience that we really want the visitor to have?” said Larson. “Do we want to be able to ring a bell at 8 a.m. to say, ‘Hey, this is how the kids were told to come in from the playground’?” 

“How do you replicate the bigger picture within the current footprint of Blackwell?” he continued. 

Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

Those questions will involve entities such as the Texas Historic Commission as well as Blackwell alumni, he said. Regarding the artifacts stored inside the school’s walls, a document referred to by NPS as “scope of collections” will also be generated with the help of museum specialists, outlining a “period of significance” — or the time during which the site operated as a school — and artifact donations the Blackwell School NHS may accept in the future. 

“Each model is different, each park is different. The experts will listen to the community and then come up with an approved plan for displaying items,” said Larson. “Things that are [currently] in the Blackwell School — most of those, all of them, probably — will be accepted into the collection.” 

Before those questions can be resolved, the site, currently the property of the Marfa Independent School District, must be transferred to the National Park Service. But that transaction has hit a snag lately, said Superintendent Oscar Aguero. The way the school board’s current policies and procedures for selling and acquiring property are written, the district will be required to put the property out for bid, said Aguero. 

“It says that we have to put it on the open market, we have to advertise it and all that. Unfortunately, the fear is that someone comes in and puts a higher bid than the park’s,” said Aguero.

To avoid that scenario, the district is working to develop a points system, rather than award the property to the highest bidder, similar to how they evaluate construction projects, said Aguero, to ensure the Federal Parks Coalition — which will purchase the property on behalf of NPS, then donate it — gets the bid. 

Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

As the future of the schoolhouse comes into focus, transitioning from the hands of the Blackwell School Alliance to the purview of NPS, alliance members are left to reassess their role in the site’s operations. The alliance worked for years to preserve the site and was instrumental in shepherding the historic site designation.

“The Blackwell School being established closes a really, really long chapter of advocacy and hard work by people from the Marfa community and our partners throughout the state and the country who have helped make this happen,” said Hernandez. 

Members distributed brochures at Saturday’s block party addressing the issue. Moving forward, the alliance will likely shift towards more of a friends group model for the park as it works to preserve the Blackwell story, said Mario Rivera, acting president of the alliance. Friends groups typically engage in fundraising efforts, but the group will likely take part in community education and outreach as well. The alliance is currently deciding whether to rent an office, raise money in order to hire an executive director, and undergo a new website design.

The brochure also solicited new board members, as former alliance president and director Gretel Enck and longtime volunteers Kathleen and David Walstrom will no longer be participating. 

Enck announced she would step down from her leadership role in February, citing a potential conflict of interest with her day job as an administrator for the Fort Davis National Historic Site. On Saturday, Enck was presented with an award by Rivera, who thanked her for her years of service as the organization’s leader and for her work in making the historic site designation a reality. 

Amidst the much-anticipated change and looming questions, participants in Saturday’s block party festivities were able to bask in food, music and community as the long-sought designation was celebrated. 

Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

Attendees sat protected from the afternoon sun underneath tents decorated with colorful papel picado, their lunch plates full of Mexican food from Angel’s restaurant. Mariachi Santa Cruz and Hector Sanchez Band provided music, and Ballet Folklórico danced to “La Negra,” “Las Alazanas,” “El Jarabe Tapatío” and “El Huizache.” Local organizations like the Friends of the Ruidosa Church and the Marfa and Presidio County Museum tabled alongside the U.S. National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association. Loteria and exhibits took place inside of the schoolhouse.

Rivera said he was pleased with the turnout for the special occasion and to see people from “all walks of life” in attendance. As a Blackwell alumni, the get together was particularly meaningful, he said. 

“Seventy-three years ago I was in this room behind me in the first grade. Seventy-three years later, here I am again at the Blackwell School grounds celebrating this National Historic site designation,” said Rivera. “I think it’s quite an accomplishment. I’m proud of the members of the alliance. I’m proud of the people of the community that helped us do this, I can’t see anything but a win-win situation.”