The segregation of Latinx children was commonplace throughout the United States in the early-to-mid 1900s. While the California Education Code did not explicitly allow for the segregation of children of Latinx descent, approximately 80% of California school districts with substantial Mexican and Mexican-American populations were segregated.
The other 20% of school districts maintained partial forms of segregation, such as segregated classrooms within mixed schools. School boards in cities such as Pasadena, Santa Ana, Riverside, and Los Angeles offered various rationales for such segregation.
Several districts argued that the “Americanization” of schools (a deceptive term used to refer to segregating for the benefit of white students and Latinx students) were necessary to properly assimilate Latinx youth. Records indicate that such “Mexican schools” had substandard facilities, shorter school years, and poorer quality of instruction.
In this context, the integrated grammar school of Lemon Grove was an anomaly, and it’s that integration being successful (prior to a late desegregation attempt) that would lead to the first successful school desegregation cases in the United States.
The Lemon Grove School District was made up of approximately 75 Mexican and Mexican American students and 95 white students.
On July 23, 1930, the Lemon Grove school board decided to build a separate school for children of Mexican heritage without giving notice to their parents. The plan was discussed by the school board and subsequently endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and local PTA.
On January 5, 1931, Lemon Grove Grammar School principal Jerome Green, acting under instructions from school trustees, turned away Mexican children at the schoolhouse door, directing them to the new school. In response, parents who were outraged at the response refused to send their children to the new school.
This resulted in a boycott. Through this boycott, 75 students remained at home and the local press took note of this protest, writing this in the headlines as “the Mexican Student Strike.”
Which would lead to the parents of the students who were forced to change schools to organize and find legal representation against the racist actions of the school district and school administration.
The families of the students, with the assistance of the two attorneys, filed a suit against the Lemon Grove School Board in the Superior Court of California in San Diego on February 13, 1931. Submitted in the name of Mexican American student Roberto Alvarez, the petition accused the school board of "an attempt at racial segregation. The suit also pointed out that 95% of the children who the school board sought to segregate were U.S. citizens and thus "entitled to all the rights and privileges common to all citizens of the United States.
The trial played out and on March 30, 1931, the presiding Judge Chambers issued his ruling in favor of Roberto Alvarez. The judge repudiated each of the school board’s claims. Although allowing that the school board could “separate a few children to offer special instruction,” he wrote, “to separate all the Mexicans in one group can only be done by infringing the laws of the State of California.”
However, don’t mistake this victory for a complete one as the judge specifically ruled that children of Mexican origin/descent could not be segregated under the laws of the state of California, because they were "of the Caucasian race", and laws allowing the segregation of Asian, Black, and Indigenous children therefore did not apply.
Despite its initial obscurity and limited broader impact, the Lemon Grove Case has increasingly gained recognition for its place in the trajectory of school desegregation as the first successful desegregation case. In addition, scholars agree that the case constitutes a testament to the Mexican immigrant families who, despite a hostile political climate, refused to accept separate and inferior educations for their children and who leveraged the U.S. legal system to challenge such a violation of their children’s rights.
As noted by historian Robert Alvarez Jr., “This was the first situation when a group of immigrants had gotten together, challenged a school board and won.”
And should be remembered as a hard fought victory by a group of people who saw an injustice and organized to fight back.
“A Different Shade of Brown: Latinos and School Desegregation” by Kristi Bowman
“Before Brown: 23 years prior to landmark decision, Mexican-Americans win suit against Lemon Grove school board that had banned their children” by Leonel Sanchez