The Language of Segregation

Mexican American Church Community gathered together, C10624.

The Language of Segregation

Blog post by Rusty
Monday, July 10, 2017

Between 1916 and 1945 Austin maintained a school specifically for Spanish-speaking children. The school aspired to ensure that “the next generation of Mexicans in Texas will be superior to the present one.” It reported “a wonderful change in the lives and characters of the children.” Curriculum included acquainting the Mexican child with skills like “conservation of time, efficiency, and systematized living” and “teaching practical things (like) how to clean clothes; how to buy and cook foods of the best quality for the money; how to buy the best clothes for the money, instead of teaching how to make a salad or a fancy dress”. West Avenue was the first of what would become several schools throughout Austin separating Mexican children on a basis of language. The schools were credited with helping the Mexican child to overcome his handicap. A handicap inherited by all Mexicans from their cultural background and only overcome by their need to adopt to an industrial society.

The year 1916 culminated a period of increased Mexican migration into Texas as people fled the Mexican Revolution. It also coincided with an approaching mandate by the State that would go into effect in 1917 requiring all children to attend school. In anticipation of the increased number of Mexican students Austin’s school board established a new school at the Southwest corner of West 5th and West Avenue to be called the West Avenue School. The board stated at the time that “the peculiar conditions existing have rendered it necessary, in the opinion of the school board, to provide a separate school for non-English speaking pupils in the first, second, and third grades.” The launch of the program and the new school required the transfer of 105 students from three different schools throughout the city to the new location and mandated their travel aboard the city’s trolley line each morning for attendance.

The Statesman, November 10, 1968, 

Three days after opening 125 Mexican citizens gathered at the West Avenue School in protest of the actions by Superintendent A.N. McCallum and the school board. McCallum was in attendance to explain that their children would be returned to their respective schools as soon as their “understanding of the language would warrant”. A delegation from the protest met with the board to address the problems of transporting their children across the city and argued that their children could learn English as quickly in their own schools with American children as associates as they could in a school especially for the non-English-speaking. At the Board meeting attended by the delegation there were not enough members to hold quorum and vote on the matter. The following night when the board reconvened they voted to continue with the non-English speaking school as planned with the Superintendent stressing that a pupil would be placed in their local school as soon as he had the necessary English language skills.

While the protest did not inspire a change of heart by the school board, coverage of the Mexican community’s plight moved from page eight to page one in the Austin Statesman. The protest included a partial boycott of the West Avenue School and resulted in a decrease of the original 105 pupils to 40. Enrollment continued to fall over the next three years as the protest continued. Despite the negative publicity and community unrest the school would not only not back down but chose instead to use West Avenue as a blueprint for the creation of additional schools under the same ideology. In 1922 the East Avenue School was established for “non-English speaking children of the first and second grades”. By 1923 East Avenue had an enrollment of 120 students. Later moved to East 3rd and Comal Streets the school became known as Comal.

AR.G.003(20) Students at West Austin School

Standards for determining the language fluency of students required to transfer to these schools or that were used to prove their ability to return to their ward schools have never been found. While examples exist showing that students did return to their ward schools, the evidence also suggests that the schools’ targeted students less based on language than on ethnicity. Review of the surnames of enrolled students in Austin’s schools from the time shows that those with Mexican heritage were segregated into West Avenue and other schools created under the same umbrella of language services.

For the next 20 years the School Board and its Superintendent would continue to argue that the children were not being separated “because they were Mexicans, but because their inability to speak English makes them an impediment for the progress of the English-speaking children in the ward school”. In 1936 Austin opened Zavala School, a mere three blocks from Metz, and announced that Mexican children from Bickler, Comal, Palm and Metz were to be segregated and were to solely attend the new school. This was the culmination of a pattern of segregation begun with West Avenue School twenty years earlier based on language. Civil Rights lawsuits in the 1970s would rule that Austin’s schools had engaged in intentional segregation of Mexican American students stating that “a benign motive will not excuse the discriminatory effects of the school board’s actions”.

Migration and language remain controversial topics to this day. Confusion between levels of “language acquisition” and “culture assimilation” are common nowadays as well as a lack of understanding of the richness that bilingualism and multilingualism bring to a society. It is easy to lose sight of the historic precedent that has come before in favor of the passions inspired in the moment, but important to recall these examples from our past to illustrate how quickly a good intention can evolve into intolerant actions. With resources like those at the Austin History Center we can learn from our history and take advantage of services from the Austin Public Library to improve our language skills and engage in activities that benefit our community.

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