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Congress approves bill making Marfa’s Blackwell School a national historic site

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
The Blackwell School pictured in May 2022.

The bipartisan measure comes after years of work by Blackwell alumni to preserve the school’s history. The new historic site will be partly dedicated to exploring the broader history of school segregation of Mexican-Americans across the southwest. | Lea esta nota en español

Lawmakers in Congress on Tuesday approved legislation to make Marfa’s Blackwell School a national historic site, the culmination of years of work by Blackwell alumni to preserve the school’s history.

On a bipartisan vote of 414 to 12, the House approved a bill establishing the new historic site that was previously passed by the Senate in late May.

The bill, spearheaded by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and his Democratic colleague Alex Padilla of California, is the culmination of years of work by Blackwell alumni to preserve the school’s history and their own, sometimes troubling memories of it.

“It was painful,” said Jessi Silva, who attended the school in the 1950s.

In an interview, Silva celebrated the news of the historic site bill passing, calling it a “step forward” and something that the area’s Hispanic population will be proud of.

She described mixed feelings about attending the school as a child, saying that while she was subjected to racism, humiliation and at times harsh discipline, she also learned a lot.

“I really appreciate the education I got,” she said. “We learned, we had homework, we were always studying, to me that was very helpful.”

The Blackwell School, a small adobe building on Marfa’s south side and the last remnant of what was once a larger campus, was opened in the early 1900s and operated until 1965, educating the town’s Mexican-American students for decades when they 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.

Courtesy of the Marfa and Presidio County Museum
A group of students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on the grounds of the original Blackwell School.

Blackwell was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019, as the Big Bend Sentinel reported at the time. An earlier effort in 2020 to establish the national historic site stalled in Congress, but was revived by Cornyn and Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales in 2021.

In a 2017 conversation for the public radio program StoryCorps, Silva recalled how she and her fellow students were barred from speaking Spanish inside the school - and paddled when they defied the ban - despite the fact that Spanish was many of the children’s first language.

As Silva recalled alongside former Blackwell student Maggie Marquez, the ban was instituted in part through a symbolic mock burial of “Mr. Spanish.”

“I felt a loss, I felt like something was being ripped away from me,” she said. “And I was only six, yet I understood that something’s wrong here.”

In a statement, Cornyn called the Blackwell School a “symbol of the progress that has been made and what still remains.”

Gonzales, who sponsored companion legislation to the Senate bill, said this week the bill honors the “hard work and fighting spirit of the Hispanic community.”

“The Blackwell School was the only place where children of Mexican descent could be educated and have a shot at the American dream,” he said during debate on the bill Monday. “Today, the Blackwell School reminds us of the resiliency the Mexican-American community has displayed throughout our history.”

While the Blackwell bill awaits President Biden’s signature, organizers are already planning for the next steps in the process to establish the historic site.

Gretel Enck, president of the Blackwell School Alliance, said the next big task for her organization will be working with a charitable organization to transfer ownership of the school property to the national park service.

Currently, the Marfa Independent School District owns the property. The plan, Enck said, is for the National Park Foundation to purchase the property from the school district, and then donate it to the U.S. Interior Department.

The bill approved Tuesday calls for the association and its alumni members to be involved in planning parts of the new historic site.

“Part of that is the building itself, and part of that is creating exhibits to ensure that they are telling the stories that really represent the Blackwell School and all of the ways the school speaks for a larger experience across Texas and the borderlands,” Enck said.

For now, Blackwell remains open to the public as a museum operated by the association. It’s far from clear when the school’s full transformation to a national historic site will be completed.

“That may be five years away,” Enck said. “But there’s certainly things that will happen very quickly in the meantime that will lead to that.”

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