By Carlos Morales
The adobe walls of Marfa’s Blackwell School once provided the only classrooms for young Mexican-American students in this pocket of rural West Texas. Now, the century-old building could become a national landmark, preserving students’ legacies and teaching future generations the history of segregation along the Texas-Mexico border.
From 1909 to 1965, Hispanic children in Marfa could only enroll at Blackwell, where they were largely taught by white educators. The Blackwell Broncos, whose school colors were black and red, were known for their marching band and six-man football team. That history could soon fall under the supervision of the National Park Service if Congress approves legislation making the school a National Historic Site.
U.S. Representatives Will Hurd and Filemon Vela filed a bill on Friday calling for the designation of Blackwell as a national landmark. Throughout the Big Bend, similar schools were erected in the 1900s—Marathon’s Hidalgo Ward School and Alpine’s Centennial School, for example—but few remain.
“This designation will help preserve and maintain the property so that folks across Texas and the nation can visit and learn the history and experiences of Mexican-American families during this time in Texas history,” said Rep. Vela, a Democrat whose district includes part of the Texas-Mexico border.
For nearly 15 years, the Blackwell School Alliance has worked to record and document the history of segregation at the schoolhouse. The non-profit, founded by former Blackwell students, has held block parties and created art projects to tell the lesser-known stories of the city’s history.
“If we want to understand America today, we need to understand these historic experiences of people who have been classified as other, whether it’s black or immigrant, or native people, or Mexican-Americans in Marfa,” said Gretel Enck, the current president of the Blackwell School Alliance.
Some alumni have recalled their school-age days at Blackwell with fondness and pride, but also as a time defined by discrimination. For most of the students at Blackwell, Spanish was their first language—but school officials told students like Maggie Marquez, now in her 70s, that they were only allowed to speak English. And one day, Marquez remembered, the school held a mock funeral ceremony teachers called the “burial of Mr. Spanish.”
“I walked into the room and the teacher, she said for us to get a piece of paper and write down, ‘I will not speak Spanish in school,’ Marquez remembered in a 2017 interview with StoryCorps.
“All the teachers, they had a little cigar box and put the kids’ little papers in there. And we all marched out to where the flagpole was.”
There the box was buried, and students were told to only speak English from then on.
“Blackwell School might represent a dark time in our nation’s past, but we must not shy away from our past so future generations learn from it,” said Republican Congressman Will Hurd, who represents Marfa and the Big Bend region.
“We have a responsibility as a nation to care for these places and ensure the history they represent is told,” Hurd said in a statement.
In December 2019, Blackwell was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Big Bend Sentinel. But a National Historic Site designation could provide the school with an influx of funding and could lead to the restoration of the aging adobe school building, which is in need of electrical work, among other things.
The designation would also mean professional resources for the school and help to preserve the artifacts—jewelry, letters, sports uniforms, and trophies—that the Blackwell School Alliance has collected so far.
“We think of it as this local, personal story, but it really represents so much of what was going on across Texas, both in education, and the segregation of communities in general,” said Enck.
If Blackwell becomes a national landmark, it would be one of the few sites in the national park system to commemorate “contemporary Latino Heritage,” according to Alan Spears with the National Parks Conservation Association.
“A Blackwell School National Historic Site designation could be a historic tide that raises all these other boats, raises all these other stories, and gives them a little bit more daylight and a little bit more recognition,” said Spears.
It’s unclear when the legislation from Congressman Hurd and Vela will be taken up, but there are only a handful of legislative working days left in September. Beyond this month, Spears said, the upcoming Election could also stymie the legislative process.
“We are going to have to watch the clock and watch Congress to determine exactly how far this bill is able to advance this year,” said Spears. “But the significance of the story doesn’t go away.”