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May 21, 1989|MARIA NEWMAN | Newman is a Times staff writer.

Eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court called for the end of racial segregation in schools nationwide, a U. S. District judge ruled that four Orange County school districts were wrong in forcing Latino children to attend schools in facilities separate from their Anglo peers. It was the first time a federal judge had denounced such segregation; the decision was seen as one that would change education in the entire country.

On the first day of school in the fall of 1944, Soledad Vidaurri took her two children and her brother's two children to the 17th Street School in Westminster. When she walked up to a table of school officials, they took one look and told her they would allow her children to enroll in the all-Anglo school but would not admit her brother's children.

"Her kids were lighter-skinned than ours, and her last name was French," says Vidaurri's sister-in-law, Felicitas Mendez, who was married to Vidaurri's brother, Gonzalo Mendez. "They told her that they would take hers, but that ours belonged in the 'Mexican school' in the barrio."

Soledad Vidaurri returned home without enrolling even her own children.

That the Mendez children were told to go a few blocks away to the Hoover School, known as "the Mexican school," while their cousins would be allowed in the 17th Street School because they looked "white enough" was no surprise to Latinos at that time. Having to enduring that kind of segregation wasn't unusual for Latinos in the Southwest. But that particular instance happened to be the last straw for an asparagus farmer and his wife who decided that the status quo stood squarely at cross-purposes with the dreams they had for their children.

"A person gets tired of being pushed around," Felicitas Mendez, now 74, said recently at her daughter's home in Fullerton.

The result was a lawsuit filed a year later on behalf of her husband, Gonzalo Mendez, then operator of a popular cafe, and "some 5,000 persons similarly affected, all of Mexican or Latin descent," according to the lawsuit.

In February, 1946, eight years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education called for the end of racial segregation in schools nationwide, U. S. District Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled that four Orange County school districts--Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modena--were wrong in forcing Latino children to attend schools in facilities separate from their Anglo peers.

In his decision, McCormick rejected the districts' argument that children of Mexican descent should be separated from others because of their problems with the English language. All of the children involved in the lawsuit were American citizens, and McCormick pointed out that school districts were not testing their English-language proficiency before arbitrarily sending them to separate schools.

"A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality," McCormick wrote. "It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage."

He cited specifically two elementary schools in the El Modena district, which has since been incorporated into the Orange Unified School District. The Lincoln and Roosevelt elementary schools were next door to each other, with only a fence separating them. Mexican-American children attended Lincoln, while Anglo students attended Roosevelt. That type of segregation, McCormick wrote, "foster(s) antagonism in the children and suggests inferiority among them where none exists."

His decision, legal scholars say, rejected the notion of "separate but equal" facilities and established that separate school facilities violated the 14th Amendment provision for equal protection.

Although other lawsuits in the Southwest had challenged segregation policies--though only a few successfully--this was the first time a federal judge anywhere in the country had denounced racial segregation in public schools, according to legal scholars.

Legal experts immediately saw the Orange County case as a trailblazer for a decision that would change education in the entire country.

The Yale Law Review wrote in 1947 about Mendez, et al, vs. Westminster school district, et al: "There is little doubt that the Supreme Court will be presented with a case involving segregation in schools within the next year or two."

They were prophetic words. Though it would be eight more years before the Supreme Court would take action, a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall began laying the groundwork for just such a case. Marshall filed a friend of the court brief for the Mendez case when it was appealed to the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in 1947, according to Gilbert G. Gonzalez, author of a book on segregation in Southern California. The appellate court upheld McCormick's decision, and the school districts decided not to appeal further.

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