Many people are well aware of the history of segregation of African American students in the Kansas City, Missouri, public schools, but there’s a compelling and mostly forgotten history of segregation of Mexican American children in the Kansas City, Kansas, public schools.
Immigrants came to the Kansas City area to pursue the American dream in railyards and meatpacking plants. They faced inequalities even as they fought for educational opportunities for their children from the 1920s to 1951.
“Over time, by the teens and 20s, you had a community of over 10,000 Mexican Americans living in Kansas City, Kansas,” said Daniel Serda, who has painstakingly researched this history.
Serda has served on the University of Kansas urban planning faculty and now specializes in urban revitalization for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
A ‘shameful legacy’
For adults who have shared those memories of segregation decades ago, Serda says, “It’s a very shameful legacy to them. They knew they were there despite the best efforts of others to deprive them of an education.”
Serda recently told KCUR’s Up to Date that this history dates back to the early 1900s, when, much like today, immigrants crossed the southern border to try to build a better life in the U.S.
Mexican laborers were drawn to work for the Kansas City Southern and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad companies. Others worked for meat-packing plants. They gravitated to Kansas City, Kansas neighborhoods, which had more Hispanics than the West Side neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri.
The laborers gradually married and sent their children to schools such as John J. Ingalls in Armourdale and the Emerson School in Argentine.
The flu sparks hysteria
The pandemic flu, sometimes called the Spanish flu, struck in 1918. The local PTAs panicked over having immigrant children who they feared might carry disease attending their schools.
“There was what you might call near hysteria,” Serda says. “It was one of the first impetuses for the creation of segregated schools.”
Parents lobbied the school district to separate the children. Schools officials relegated Mexican American children, many of whom were U.S. citizens, to the basements of the Ingalls and Emerson school basements in the 1920s.
Conditions “were terrible,” Serda said. “They were dank. They were dark.” As many as 80 students were crammed into one classroom, with one teacher, next to the boiler.
In 1924, the district built the Clara Barton School in Argentine, the first specifically segregated Mexican school in KCK. It was soon overcrowded. Mexican American children were also segregated in several annexes that had become cast offs when newer schools opened for white children.
High schools made no accommodations for Mexican children past eighth grade, because they presumed the children would just go to work.
Some families fought back, reaching out to the Mexican Consul in Kansas City, Mo., and to the federal government. Serda says they raised legal arguments that were ahead of their time, arguing that Mexican American children deserved a truly equal education under the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause.
Gradually, these efforts forced the school district to integrate some of its schools, with two Mexican American students graduating from Argentine High School in 1930. The historical record isn’t clear when the basement classrooms at Ingalls and Emerson ceased, but another segregated annex closed in the 1940s.
The massive 1951 flood played a role in ending school segregation Kansas City, Kansas. The Clara Barton School was knocked off its foundation by the raging waters. The following year, Mexican American children were allowed back into Emerson Elementary’s general population for the first time since 1918.
Serda says segregation memories were seared into the minds of those community members who lived this history. He says they told him, “We struggled against that. That made us even more assertive with our own children and our grandchildren and the need for them to be educated and to have the right to be educated.”
Serda is highlighting this little-known history of the discrimination that Mexican American children faced and how their advocates fought for change. He will speak at 6 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library South Branch, 3104 Strong Ave.
Daniel Serda is project manager for the Kansas City Catalytic Urban Revitalization strategy at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. He spoke with KCUR 89.3 on a recent edition of Up To Date.
Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley