House Passes Bill to Rename L.A. Courthouse After Mendez Family Who Helped Desegregate Schools

If it passes in the Senate, it will be the first federal courthouse named after a Latina

Rep.Jimmy Gomez Mendez courthouse

Rep. Jimmy Gomez along with Sylvia and Sandra Mendez with leaders of Latinx organizations introduce courthouse bill on Capitol Hill  Credit: Rep. Jimmy Gomez | Courtesy

California has a long history of racial segregation in the school system. For decades, Latinx families were forced to attend underfunded schools with poor-quality education. That all changed in 1947 when Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez, who were Mexican and Puerto Rican, filed a lawsuit on behalf of their daughter Sylvia Mendez and 5,000 other students, who weren’t allowed to enroll in a school in their neighborhood because it was only for white children. They won their case and ended school segregation in California, paving the way for the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that ended school segregation across the country. This month, the House passed a bipartisan bill sponsored by Congressman Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif. that seeks to name a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles after the family, as it’s only a few blocks away from the courthouse where the Mendez case took place. If it passes in the Senate, it will be the first federal courthouse named after a Latina, according to NBC News.

“What an immense honor that the House passed Congressman Jimmy Gomez’s bill to memorialize the work of my parents and all the families involved in this case by naming the Los Angeles US courthouse after them,” Sylvia Mendez said in a statement. “My parents and the four other families in this case refused to give up on their vision for a more equal society for their children, where the color of someone’s skin doesn’t determine their access to education. I am eager to see Congressman Gomez’s bill pass the Senate to preserve this important piece of history.”

Both Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez faced many struggles for equality throughout their lives. Gonzalo went to a “Mexican” school and was so successful that he transferred to a “white” school, but was forced to drop out to help support his family in the fields. Felicitas, who also came from a farmworker family, was active in the fight for workers’ rights and faced huge discrimination for her skin color. After marrying and settling on a farm in Westminster, California, they sent their children Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr., and Jerome to enroll in a white public school in their neighborhood but were turned away because of their dark skin and Mexican surnames. After trying many times to resolve the situation with the school, the school board, and the school district, the family decided to file a federal class action lawsuit in federal court against four different school districts in Orange County in collaboration with five other families. Mendez et al. v. Westminster, et al., became a historic case that ended school segregation in California – the first state in the nation to do so – and would later be used as the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education. They even won the case again in 1947 after the district appealed the decision in court.

The Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez U.S. Courthouse will be a powerful symbol of the enduring Latino American legacy and our nation’s broader struggle for equality,” Rep. Gomez said in a statement. I am proud to have worked closely with Felicitas and Gonzalo’s trailblazing daughter, Sylvia, on this legislation and I urge the Senate to pass it quickly and enshrine this important piece of history in our nation’s story.”

With the passing of this new bill, Rep. Goemz is one step closer to naming the courthouse located at 350 W. First Street in downtown Los Angeles after the Mendez family. He stated that he worked closely with Sylvia Mendez. who has become known for her own activism, during the drafting of the bill. For her advocacy work, legacy, and public speaking, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and an honorary degree from Brooklyn College in 2012. She also has several schools named after her throughout the country. In Westminster, there is a walking trail named after the family with a statue of her parents.

“Decades after Brown v. Board and Mendez v. Westminster, the fight for equality in education continues,” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement to NBC. :Honoring Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez by naming the Los Angeles US Courthouse after them takes a step to rectify past injustices and will serve as a reminder of their advocacy.”

The bill will next move to the Senate, and should it pass it would be yet another honor for the Mendez family and their historic influence on the national education system.

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