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President Biden signs Blackwell School National Historic Site Act into law

The historic site at the old adobe schoolhouse in Marfa will be partly dedicated to exploring the broader history of Mexican-American students being segregated across the southwest. |  Lea esta nota en español

By Travis Bubenik

Marfa’s Blackwell School was officially designated a national historic site on Monday, after President Biden signed into law a measure establishing the site that lawmakers in Congress approved last month.

Under the Blackwell School National Historic Site Act, the National Park Service will work to preserve the school, its history and former students’ memories.

Blackwell alumni and organizers of the historic site effort gathered at the school on Tuesday to celebrate the news.

“We’re going to place Blackwell in the hands of a very professional group,” said former Blackwell student Mario Rivera. “We couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Lionel Salgado, another former student, described the decades of work that he and other alumni have put into preserving the school’s history, stretching back to their first class reunion just a couple years after the school closed and Marfa schools were integrated.

Holding back tears, Salgado said he never imagined he would see the old school become a nationally recognized historic site.

“Took a long time, but we got it done,” he said.

The Blackwell School, open from the early 1900’s through 1965, was just one of many segregated schools across Texas and the southwest where Mexican-American students were educated separately from their white peers. Unlike the historic segregation of white and Black students in the U.S., segregation of Hispanic students often happened without laws on the books requiring it.

Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, who backed the historic site effort in Congress, highlighted the importance of the school and its place in the broader history of school segregation.

“This is a win for everybody,” he said. “This is a win for our community, this is a win for our state, this is a win for our country, and these stories have to be told for so many people that do not have a voice.” 

Republican Sen. John Cornyn was scheduled to attend the celebration but his plane was unable to land due to inclement weather in the area, his staff said.

In a statement, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland praised the news of the new historic site being established.

“As a nation, we must face the wrongs of our past in order to build a more just and equitable future,” she said. “The ugliness of the segregation era had many impacts that we have failed as a nation to adequately acknowledge.”

Haaland said the Blackwell historic site will “help us tell a truer American story, and ensure this important and painful chapter in our nation’s history is preserved and remembered for the generations to come.”

The old schoolhouse is currently open to the public as a small museum operated by the local non-profit Blackwell School Alliance. The National Park Service said its first step for transitioning the school to the new national historic site will be working with the City of Marfa to acquire the land the building sits on, a process that could take more than a year.

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