By Odessa Oda
Roberto Alvarez vs the Board of Trustees of Lemon Grove School District, better known as the “Lemon Grove Incident" was the first successful school desegregation case in America. The “incident” happened when the Lemon Grove local school board tried to build a separate school for children of Mexican decent. On March 30th, 1931, the Superior Court of San Diego County ruled the attempt to segregate 75 Mexican American students was a violation of California State Law.
In the early 1900’s segregation of Mexican and Mexican American students was common throughout the Southwest. In California 80% of school districts had segregated teaching facilities. The most common excuse used to justify separating latino students from whites was “Language handicaps” . In most cases students were promised full intergration into the white schools when students dispalyed mastery of the English language. These promises were seldom kept by school officials.
In Lemon Grove the grammar school was actually an integrated school; half of which was Mexican or Mexican American. The all white Lemon Grove school board decided on July 23, 1930 to build a separate school for Latino students without telling their parents . This plan was endorsed by the local chamber of Commerce and Parent Teacher Association.
When latino children attempted to go to school on January 5th. 1931 they were turned away and directed to go to the new school. Parents of the students refused to send them to the new school; they boycotted instead.
Mexican Americans were not represented on the local civic organizations that decided their children’s fate but they quickly organized into the El Comite de Vecinos de Lemon Grove (the Lemon Grove Neighbors Committee). This organization got support morally and financially from both sides of the border allowing the newly founded organization to cover the cost of the upcoming lawsuits.
The Comite filed suit against the local Lemon Grove School Board in the Superior Court of San Diego in the name of student Roberto Alvarez. The petition accused the board of “an attempt at racial segregation” by separating all of the children of Mexican decent from the white student population. The suit also noted that 95% of the students were U.S citizens entitled to all the rights and privileges that citizenship entailed.
The school board of Lemon Grove denied these charges. They argued the school was created to benefit the Mexican American youth in the community. They argued the school was brand new with a fully functional playground, the school was located in the predominately Mexican area of town so it was safer for children walking to school and that it could “Americanize “ the children and help them to learn a level of English profieciency they claimed the majority of the students didn’t posess. The school boards “claims” did not hold up in court
Presiding Judge Chambers issued his ruling in favor of Roberto Alvarez . The Judge found that under California state law it was illegal to segregate the children because they were of the “Caucasian race.” The state law only allowed for the segregation of “Oriental,” “ Negro,” and “Indian” children.
The decision was not appealed by Lemon Grove because they did not want too much publicity for the small town due to there actions.
The kids were allowed to re enter their integrated grammar school but the case had no bearing on making the same change in the rest of the state. It would be a decade later in 194 before Mendez v. Westminster would outlaw segregation through out California.
This case though not well known is important to the struggle for equal rights in this country. It took many people to get us to where we are now in our country. And it will take many more to go even further. Looking at the past gives us perspective. And in perspective anything is possible.