School desegregation icon to speak at Longfellow tonight

Second-grade students at Jefferson meet activist Sylvia Mendez. Photo: Alison Leaf

School desegregation pioneer Sylvia Mendez is making the rounds at Berkeley schools Thursday, culminating in a public event at Longfellow Middle School tonight, April 13.

Mendez was a key figure in the case that required California to desegregate its public schools — years before Brown v. Board of Education. In 1946 9-year-old Mendez, the child of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants, was denied enrollment in an Orange County public school because she was not white. Her father Gonzalo Mendez ultimately took four school districts to court, winning a class-action lawsuit that ended legal segregation in the state. Seventy years after the landmark Mendez v. Westminster, 80-year-old Mendez is still a vocal education equality advocate who often speaks with young people about the relevance of her story today.

Mendez’s visit to Berkeley began with a stop at Jefferson Elementary School on Thursday morning, where she surprised a classroom of second-grade students who made a short film about the activist this school year.

The students had been “shocked to learn that there had been separate schools for students based on their ethnic background and/or color of their skin,” wrote their teacher Lisa Rossi in a statement. The kids, who are the same age Mendez was when she was barred from attending a whites-only school, took a field trip to the San Francisco court that heard the Mendez v. Westminster appeal.


Channeling their outrage into creative energy, the second-grade students wrote and acted in the short movie about the Mendez family, which won an award at the Bay Area International Children’s Film Festival in March.

Sylvia Mendez visit Jefferson Elementary on April 13. Photo: Alison Leaf

Mendez, a 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, also visited Thousand Oaks Elementary and Longfellow on Thursday. She will speak again at the Longfellow auditorium, at 1500 Derby St., from 6-8 p.m tonight.

“I love speaking and inspiring students,” Mendez wrote in a Facebook post about her trip to Berkeley.

Her visit is part of Berkeley Unified School District’s month-long commemoration of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The district’s annual student writing and art contest focuses on the Mendez case this year.