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'We are happy, excited and relieved': Marfa residents react as Biden makes the Blackwell School a National Historic Site

Blackwell was a segregated school for Mexican American students from 1909 to 1969. Its history will now be preserved for people to learn about.

MARFA, Texas — There was a celebration in Marfa, Texas, as the residents learned the Blackwell School will forever be an official part of American history.

“People are so happy that their stories will live on,” said Gretel Enck, president of The Blackwell Alliance.

President Joe Biden signed a bill into law making Blackwell a National Historic Site, forever protecting the site for future generations.

“As a nation, we must face the wrongs of our past in order to build a more just and equitable future. The ugliness of the segregation era had many impacts that we have failed as a nation to adequately acknowledge," said Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior. "This new designation 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 generations to come."

Blackwell opened in 1909 as a segregated school for children of Mexican descent. It remained that way until 1965, when it was integrated. 

WFAA spoke with some of the former students who recall the discrimination.

"That’s where I learned about racism here in Marfa," said Jessi Silva, a former student.

Most of the students’ parents didn’t speak English. For most, Spanish was their native language, but they were banned from speaking it at school.

They even had a funeral for the Spanish language. 

“They had to write on a piece of paper I will never speak Spanish again and put it in a little coffin,” said Silva.

They took the little coffin and buried it during a mock funeral. Anyone who spoke Spanish would be punished.

"So many kids only spoke Spanish at home and they felt they were being denied their heritage," said Enck.

Some of the students say it wasn’t all bad -- there were also good times and they made life-long friends and memories.

"That’s the way it was back then. I don’t care how you look at it. It’s still history," said Leo Salgado, a former student.

For 15 years, the former students and residents have fought to save the school and restore the old building. 

This designation now gives them the money to do the renovations.

Sen. John Cornyn and congressman Tony Gonzales sponsored the bills in Congress to make this happen.  

They issued a joint statement:

“The Lone Star State is full of landmarks that teach us about who we are and where we come from as Texans, and the Blackwell School is an important part of that history,” said Sen. Cornyn. “I’m grateful to my colleagues Senator Padilla and Congressman Gonzales for partnering with me on this bipartisan push to recognize the Blackwell School, and I look forward to seeing how this National Historic site continues to educate future generations.”

 “For decades, the Blackwell School served as the only institution in Marfa where the Hispanic community could receive an education. It was here that generations of Latino students faced the challenge of being considered as ‘separate but equal,’” said Rep. Gonzales. “For that reason, it is important for us to honor and preserve this building where such historic accounts took place. I am proud to see that legislation by Senator Cornyn and I will establish the Blackwell School as a national park site to commemorate this chapter of Latino history in the United States.”




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