Scholars Speak: Piecing Together an Undertold Story

This post is part of our blog series “Scholars Speak,” which features writing from our 2023 cohort of Preservation Scholars. Click the link to learn more about this donor-funded program that aims to increase the diversity of voices in the Texas historical narrative by placing students from underrepresented cultural and ethnic backgrounds in paid, 10-week long summer internship positions at the Texas Historical Commission.

Scholars Speak: Piecing Together an Undertold Story

by Lauren Huffmaster, 2023 Larry Oaks Preservation Scholar

When I began my internship working on the Beyond the Markers Project within the History Program Division of the Texas Historical Commission, I understood that Hispanic Texans encountered discrimination and segregation throughout the early and mid-20th century. However, the nature of this discrimination and its scope was unfamiliar to me. All I truly knew were stories from my grandmother about being banned from the “Whites-only” pool, and of her brother had been placed in the “colored dorms” at the University of Texas. Thus, when I began my research, I was baffled by the fact that Hispanic people were classified as White throughout most of the 20th century. How was it possible that my family had experienced racial segregation while being considered White? This paradox was quickly unraveled with my discovery of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

This treaty, signed in 1848, ended the Mexican American War (1846-1848) and ceded large swaths of Mexican territory to the United States in what would come to be known as the Mexican Cession. Due to the large number of Mexican citizens in this land, a condition of the treaty was that all those in ceded territory be given the full rights and protections of US citizens. However, at the time only White people were eligible for citizenship. Citizenship was not extended to African Americans until 1870, and until even later for other ethnic groups. Rather than expand citizenship rights to people of color, the United States government decided that all the citizens of Mexico, and by extension all Latin Americans, would be considered legally White. Thus, the entirety of the ethnically diverse Latino population was placed into one box, erasing their complex identities.

Despite this legal classification, communities rarely perceived Hispanics as White, and it was common for them to experience segregation throughout the early and mid-20th century. This took the form of being barred from stores, pools, and diners, sitting in roped off sections of theaters, and being placed in separate Hispanic schools commonly called “Mexican Schools,” “Americanization Schools,” or “Ward Schools.” However, because of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it is often difficult to find these institutions. Unlike segregated schools for African Americans, there was no requirement to disclose on legal documents when as school was a “Mexican School”—after all, the students were legally White. However, by looking at maps, newspapers, interviews, and surveys, it is possible to piece together the locations of these institutions. Learning about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and its lasting consequences has been integral to understanding the complex nature of Hispanic education in Texas, and of the under-told history of Hispanic segregation in the state.