Future ‘walk through history’ trail to honor the landmark Westminster school segregation case

Future teachers, educators and civil leaders gathered on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon, at the Mendez Tribute Monument Park in Westminster, to remember the landmark Orange County case that ended segregated education in California.

At the park, teaching candidates from Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University met with civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, whose parents were among several Mexican American families who successfully challenged segregation in California schools in the 1940s — years before Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that would declare segregation unconstitutional.

“I remember we lived in a white neighborhood, so when the bus dropped us off, all of my friends were allowed to go to the school with the beautiful playground,” Mendez, who grew up in the area, shared at the event. “I wasn’t allowed to go to that school. I had to go to my dreadful school.”

In 1943, Mendez and her siblings were denied entrance to Westminster’s Seventeenth Street School because of their Mexican heritage. Mendez was 9 years old. She and other Latino students were told to attend “a nearby Mexican school” and forced to walk a half mile further to get to Hoover Elementary, the area’s segregated school.

Mendez’s parents and four other Mexican American families soon took their stories to California courts, filing a class action lawsuit (Mendez v. Westminster) against four different OC school districts — Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and what was then known as El Modena in East Orange — in 1947. Their successful case led to segregated schools being repealed in California, and built much of the groundwork to uphold Brown v. Board of Education, experts said.

At Tuesday’s event, Vanguard teaching candidates got to walk the same path, along Hoover St., that Mendez and her classmates took.

Today, the Mendez Tribute Monument Park, on the corner of Westminster Blvd. and Olive St., pays homage to the landmark case and the Mendez family’s story. A statue of Sylvia Mendez’s parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas, stands central to the park, along with a statue of two children walking to school — symbolizing the thousands of children who were represented in the ruling.

Sergio Contreras, the former Westminster councilman who worked with the community to build and open the park in 2022, said then that the Mendez family’s “fight to get a quality education… sowed the seeds of equality legislation for the nation. Who would ever imagine that Orange County would be the birthplace of desegregation in California and in our country?”

By creating the park, and the future Mendez Freedom Trail, local leaders and educators aim to preserve the ruling and its impact. Officials at Tuesday’s event say the new 2-mile pedestrian and bike trail will mirror the same walk Mendez and others took to get to their segregated school.

The trail will cost approximately $5 million, according to Westminister assistant city manager Adolfo Ozaeta.

The future Mendez Freedom Trail along Hoover St. will include interactive signs noting the history behind the desegregation case in OC schools. It will break ground and start construction in the coming weeks, Vanguard University officials said, and is currently projected to be finished by the end of the year.

Attendees also supported newly proposed legislation that, if passed, would mandate the Mendez v. Westminster case into California public schools’ history and social science curriculumAB-1805 was filed in early January by Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana and Assemblymember Tri Ta, R-Westminster.

Mendez, now 87, hopes that the proposal goes through. She learned about the new trail getting the city’s official greenlight at Tuesday’s event. She said she was “so excited” that her parents’ legacy and family name would be honored again in this way, adding that her late mother, Felicitas, is her reason for working hard to raise awareness.

“I am just a storyteller,” Mendez told the future teachers, while giving them advice about working in education. “My mom and dad did all the hard work.”

Attendees were inspired by Mendez’s story and the history of the trail. The majority of teaching candidates said they didn’t know the story before their program at Vanguard.

Perla Gutierrez-Jacinto, 21, visited the tribute park last semester and was honored to walk the same path that Mendez walked in 1943. She said she was both “shocked” and “fascinated” to learn about the desegregation ruling only while in college.

“I have a personal connection to it just because I have grown up in a Mexican household,” Gutierrez-Jacinto, who lives in Costa Mesa, said. “Seeing how back then, you weren’t accepted because of your background, and seeing how it impacted people’s education, it made me more grateful to be able to have an education and to become a teacher.”

Gutierrez-Jacinto is in her last semester at the university, and is part of a dual enrollment program to earn both a Bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and a teaching certificate in four years.

“I think that it’s a great moment in history to share with others and reflect on how far we’ve come,” she said.

Dr. Jeffrey Hittenberger said he wanted to continue the legacy of the Mendez v. Westminster case with the Vanguard University community when he became its Dean of Education in 2023. Previously, he served as chief academic officer with the Orange County Department of Education, and helped the city around 2017, when Westminister officials reached out asking for education partners to create the Mendez Tribute Monument Park.

“For 70 years in Orange County, we had no place that people could go to learn about and commemorate the case,” Hittenberger, 62, said. “Now we have this space where the story is available to the larger community.”

For the last six semesters, Hittenberger said, Vanguard teaching candidates have visited the tribute park — even while it was under construction — and sometimes even get a chance to meet Mendez in person.

Hittenberger said that as a former history teacher, he loves when students can appreciate the “depth and complexity of our own history in Orange County.”

“Ultimately, the message is that people working together can make positive change for our society; change that’s more reflective of our American ideals.”


Posted in Orange County Register (OCR)

Written by , OCR Staff Writer

Photo by Leonard Ortiz, OCR Photographer