October 13, 2023
Seven years before 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling integrated U.S. schools, a young girl played an instrumental role in the Mendez v. Westminster case, the landmark desegregation case of 1946. The case successfully ended segregation in California and paved the way for integration and the American civil rights movement.
Sylvia Mendez was born in 1936 in Santa Ana, California. Her parents were Gonzalo Mendez, an immigrant from Mexico who had a successful agricultural business, and Felicitas Mendez, a native of Juncos, Puerto Rico.
In 1943, when Mendez was 8 years old, there were only two schools in Westminster, the district where Mendez lived. The district mandated separate campuses for Hispanics and whites. Hoover Elementary was a two-room wooden shack in the middle of the city’s Mexican neighborhood. 17th Street Elementary, which was a “whites only” segregated school, was located about a mile away. Unlike Hoover, the 17th Street Elementary school was amongst a row of palm and pine trees and had a lawn lining the school’s brick and concrete facade.
Her family attempted to enroll her, as well as her brothers and cousins, at the 17th Street Elementary School. They were told by school officials that the children were denied enrollment because they were dark-skinned and had a Hispanic surname. The family was told to enroll the Mendez children at Hoover Elementary School, which was specifically for Mexican Americans. After appeals to the principal and the county school board were unsuccessful, Mendez’s parents decided to take legal action and filed a lawsuit in Federal court.
In Mendez v. Westminster, on February 18, 1946, the court ruled in favor of Mendez. The school district appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling in favor of Mendez. After the ruling was upheld on appeal, then-Governor Earl Warren moved to desegregate all public schools and other public spaces in California. The success of the Mendez v. Westminster case made California the first state in the nation to end segregation in schools, paving the way for the better-known Brown v. Board of Education seven years later, which would bring an end to school segregation in the entire country.
Mendez earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a public health certificate from California State University at Los Angeles. She worked as a nurse for more than 30 years. She adopted two girls and lives in Fullerton, California. She travels and gives lectures to educate others on the historic contributions made by her parents and the co-plaintiffs to the desegregation effort in the United States, and continues to be an equal rights advocate. Mendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President Obama in 2011.