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Effort to Create Blackwell School National Historic Site Revived in Congress

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate are seeking to turn the Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas into a national historic site that would explore the area’s history of segregation.

By Travis Bubenik

Lawmakers in Congress are reviving an effort to establish a National Historic Site for Marfa’s Blackwell School, a small adobe schoolhouse that the town’s Mexican-American students once attended during an era of racial segregation in Texas and across the U.S.

From the early 1900s through 1965, Hispanic students in Marfa were not allowed to attend the same schools as their white peers. At the time, Texas laws that segregated Black and white students did not explicitly bar Hispanic students from white schools, but the practice was nonetheless common across the state and the Southwest.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Texas and California filed bills in the U.S. House and Senate that would preserve the school as part of the national parks system.

The House version, from Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, picks up on a similar effort launched last year by Gonzales’ predecessor Will Hurd.

While that bill stalled in Congress, Blackwell School President Gretel Enck said she feels better about the effort this time around, especially now that it has the support of Republican John Cornyn, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill filed Tuesday.

“I think it’s really game changing to have Senator Cornyn involved, just because he’s been around and he has a lot of power,” Enck said.

Rep. Gonzales, who is himself of Mexican descent, said in an interview that he feels good about the effort’s odds in Congress, though he said lawmakers would have to find the “right venue” to move it forward.

“It’s one of those areas that, it should be far less contentious than other things and adds to the importance of us remembering our culture and highlighting our culture,” he said.

| Listen to Marfa Public Radio’s Voices of Blackwell series, which explores the history of the Blackwell School through the memories of former students.

Enck, the Blackwell School Alliance president, said legislation was drafted based in part on earlier conversations with and among former students. Multiple Blackwell alumni serve on the alliance’s board.

“The language in the bill talks about why the Blackwell School was significant, a lot of that came from us,” she said.

Under the proposed bills, the Interior Department would enter into an agreement to either fully acquire the school and the land it sits on or co-manage the property with a local entity. The department would then draw up a map of the proposed historic site’s boundaries and then develop a “general management plan” for the site, which would be reviewed by committees in Congress.

The legislation also calls for the government to enter into a “cooperative agreement” with the Blackwell School Alliance to develop educational programming at the site.

“Preserving historical sites is crucial for future generations to understand and apply the important lessons learned as they shape the next chapter of American history,” Cornyn said in a statement announcing the Senate version of the bill. 

“The Blackwell School in the Big Bend Region of Texas will continue to serve as a symbol of the progress that has been made and what work remain,” he said.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.