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A school in rural Texas is telling the story of school segregation in the southwest

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

No Spanish allowed. That was the rule at a small schoolhouse in rural West Texas in the 1950s, even though Spanish was the native language for many of the Mexican American children there. The Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas, was one of many segregated schools across the Southwest where Hispanic students were taught separately from white students. And it's now set to become a national historic site. Marfa Public Radio's Travis Bubenik reports.

TRAVIS BUBENIK, BYLINE: The old adobe school sits on a brown, dusty lot in a quiet residential part of Marfa. It was built in 1909, and it's all that remains of what used to be a bigger campus. Mario Rivera grew up here and remembers when he was a student at Blackwell Elementary.

MARIO RIVERA: I used this room in the first grade, which is that one over there.

BUBENIK: Rivera, who uses an oxygen machine now, says he grew up in a time when this town of just a few thousand people was still heavily segregated.

RIVERA: I hadn't really mixed with white because I come from the barrio, and out there it's just my brothers and sisters, and all Hispanics.

BUBENIK: Marfa's Hispanic children went to the Blackwell School for decades until 1965, when local schools finally integrated.

RIVERA: Nobody told me that we were being segregated. It's like I said a bunch of times, I didn't even know what the word meant.

BUBENIK: Unlike the historic segregation of white and Black students in the U.S., segregation of Hispanic students in Texas and across the Southwest often happened without laws on the books requiring it. The racism of this system was even evident in classroom rules. White teachers often banned Hispanic students from speaking Spanish.

And University of Texas at El Paso professor Jonna Perrillo told Marfa Public Radio some students were even beaten for it.

JONNA PERRILLO: Or put in classes or given demerits for speaking Spanish, even on the playground. And this was policy.

BUBENIK: Jessi Silva, who went to Blackwell, remembers when teachers forced her and her classmates to write pledges on slips of paper, vowing not to speak Spanish and then bury them in a small box. She described her experience in a 2017 StoryCorps conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JESSI SILVA: We had gone to family funerals before, so we understood that there was a funeral going on, but we didn't know why. And everybody was very quiet when they buried Mr. Spanish.

BUBENIK: Despite these painful memories, some former Blackwell students also look back fondly on their time there because, they say, they got a good education, one they might have not had access to without the school. Gretel Enck heads up the Blackwell School Alliance, a group started by former students. She says those mixed memories are an important part of this history.

GRETEL ENCK: It's a mosaic of everybody's experience who came here. And we shouldn't be afraid of that complexity.

BUBENIK: Mario Rivera, one of the former students, hopes the new historic site that Congress recently approved will also be a step toward including more stories of Hispanic people in West Texas history, which is often dominated by tales of Anglo ranchers.

RIVERA: 'Cause this used to belong to Mexico. What happened to all of those Mexicanos that came here and settled here? And a lot of history's, like I said, lost, forgotten and - or just swept under the rug.

BUBENIK: The museum at the old schoolhouse will eventually be expanded. Enck says the designation is already drawing new visitors.

For NPR News, I'm Travis Bubenik in Marfa, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Travis Bubenik | Marfa Public Radio