As a certified minority-owned law firm, OMLO is proud to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Below, Rodolfo Estrada in our Education Practice shares the story of nine-year-old Sylvia Mendez—a young girl who helped end segregated schools in California and make public education accessible to all.
Most Americans know that Brown v. Board of Education is the Supreme Court case that ended segregation in US public schools. However, many are unaware that Brown v. Board of Education, which was decided in 1954, was preceded by California’s own school segregation case, Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County. Mendez, which was litigated in the 1940s, ended segregated education in California and paved the way for the Brown decision.
The story of Mendez begins in the 1940s, when Sylvia Mendez tried to enroll in her local public school. Sylvia’s school declined to enroll her because she was Latina and the school was solely for “English speakers,” which was a proxy for “whites only.” In the 1940s, Sylvia’s experience was typical. Many schools in California used the term English speakers to sort students into different, segregated schools, regardless of whether the students spoke English or not. At that time, if a student had a Latinized or Mexican-sounding name, they were deemed Spanish speakers regardless of abilities.
Sylvia, her parents, and other families affected by this unfair practice challenged the school district’s policies in federal court via a class action lawsuit. In 1946, a federal District Court found in favor of Sylvia and the approximately 5,000 students who were part of the Mendez class action. As the District Court case noted, at times only a few hundred yards would separate two schools, but the students were treated worlds apart. The District Court found that this was unacceptable and harmful to children.
The initial victory was short-lived, as the school district appealed the District Court’s decision. However, the case went on to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, who fortunately also saw the harm that such segregation imposed on students. The Appeals Court found, “By enforcing the segregation of school children of Mexican descent… [the school districts] have violated the federal law as provided in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution by depriving them of liberty and property without due process of law and by denying to them the equal protection of the laws.” As such, the Appeals Court struck down California’s use of segregated schools. Before any school district could appeal to the US Supreme Court, California codified the Mendez decision into state law. In 1947, the era of educational segregation came to an end in California.
In a unique twist of fate, the Appeals Court may have been influenced by a future Supreme Court Justice. Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer at the NAACP, submitted an amicus brief in support of Sylvia and the other students. Thurgood Marshall’s brief argued that segregation had no place in the US educational system. A few years later, Thurgood Marshall would litigate Brown v. Board of Education all the way to the US Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court ruled for the students in Brown, the era of segregation ended in all US public schools.
As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, OMLO hopes you will join us in honoring Sylvia Mendez and her critical role in ending the practice of school segregation in California and helping make public education accessible to all.
The text of the original court case may be found here: https://casetext.com/case/mendez-v-westminister-school-dist
The text of the Appeal may be found here: https://casetext.com/case/westminster-sch-d-orange-cty-v-mendez
 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
 64 F.Supp. 544 (S.D. Cal. 1946), affirmed by the 9th Circuit, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947).