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THE EDUCATION OF MEXICAN-AMERICANS IN
KANSAS CITY, KANSAS, 1916-1951 by R. M. Cleary

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A THESIS IN HISTORY   (.pdf)
Presented to the faculty of the University
of Missouri-Kansas City in partial fulfillment of
the requirements for the degree of
MASTER OF ARTS

by
ROBERT MARTIN CLEARY
B.A., Hunter College of the City University of New York, 1981
M.L.S., Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, 1993
Kansas City, Missouri 2002
© Mr. Robert Martin Cleary

This material used by courtesy of Robert Martin Cleary and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. 

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Introduction by Robert M. Cleary (.pdf)

The following are "excerpts" from the thesis, and not intended to represent the entire works. This thesis, in it's entirety, may be found at the Library of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  To read the entire thesis online, please click on the .pdf link (A THESIS IN HISTORY) at the top of this web page.

Chapter 1 - Racial Attitude Toward Mexicans

Excerpt #1:  "Since the Immigration Act of 1882 and Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 specifically excluded Chinese and Japanese workers respectively, railroad companies looked to Mexico for cheap labor after 1900. These companies perceived single Mexican males as hard workers who would eventually return to Mexico. They were also perceived as docile and submissive. But the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the years of unrest that followed discouraged repatriation, and these single men looked for other work in the winter. In the Argentine district of Kansas City in 1915, two hundred of the three hundred Mexicans living there worked for the railroad, 12 percent were women and another 12 percent were children. By 1920 families increased in the Argentine section. They lived in boxcars provided by the Santa Fe Railroad, or in boarding houses that catered to Mexicans, and a few families lived in actual homes."

Excerpt #2:  "The Anglo community in Kansas City in the early twentieth century welcomed immigrants to take jobs that earlier immigrant groups such as the Irish and Germans no longer wanted. Americanization programs popular in the United States in this time were also active in the city. The school district supported night schools for the adults, encouraged the pursuit of American citizenship, and educated their non-English speaking children. When faced with the same obligations for the children of Mexicans, race became a great concern. Anglos could not envision accepting dark-skinned Mexicans as their future equals in society, and took the same steps to exclude them as they had with African-Americans. "

Excerpt #3:  "This study focuses on three crucial neighborhoods located within Kansas City, where Mexican immigrants and their descendants settled. Argentine was the neighborhood which spearheaded drive for segregated education. After the removal of the Shawnee and Wyandotte Indian tribes to Oklahoma, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad company established a major terminal to the south of the flattest part of Kansas River plain in 1875. Attracted by the rail facilities, the town was named for and developed around a silver smelting plant established in 1881. In 1884, the town of Argentine elected their first mayor and developed their own municipal services, including schools, police, and fire departments. After the silver smelter closed in 1901, and the major floods of 1903, 1904 and 1908, financial concerns caused city leaders to seek incorporation into Kansas City, which occurred in 1909. The Santa Fe railroad remained to become the major employer in Argentine, and employed the majority of Mexican workers there.

Armourdale was situated across the Kansas River to the north from Argentine and was connected to it by numerous bridges. The Union Pacific railroad built shops there in 1860 and the Armour, Swift, and Cudahy meat packing plants became major industries in Armourdale. By 1918, twenty-nine different factories provided employment in Armourdale, including oil refineries, and milling, soap, and ice factories. Investigators who studied Armourdale in 1918, concluded that its citizens were almost exclusively “an industrial class of people” and “of the best American stock,” because 90 per cent were native born. Established as a town in 1882, Armourdale was incorporated into Kansas City in 1886. Of the three neighborhoods, Armourdale had the shortest experience of autonomy.

Rosedale was situated directly to the east of Argentine, on the southern side of the Kansas River. After the establishment of the first railroad in 1865, industries such as the Rosedale Coal & Mining Company, Thor Iron Works, and the Kansas Rolling Mills developed to supply needed materials. Established as a city of the third class in 1877 and of the second class in 1897, Rosedale was invited to incorporate with Kansas City in 1909. Despite a vote of the citizens of Rosedale to approve incorporation in 1911, the city council did not allow the vote to be certified. After political battles over the issue, and before a suit over the election was processed in the Supreme Court of Kansas, Rosedale was incorporated into Kansas City in 1922. Of the three neighborhoods, Rosedale had the longest experience of autonomy.

These three neighborhoods shared a similar history of development. They all had some experience of administering their own affairs before eventual incorporation. All had established industries that required unskilled labor, and the initial work force was provided by various European ethnic groups. In the 1870s and 1880s, the principal groups were Irish, German, Scandinavian, English, Scots, and Welsh. In the 1890s, eastern European groups such as the Polish, Croatian, Serbian, and Slovene filled the need for industrial labor. All of these neighborhoods shared the same views on the growing Mexican population that developed after 1910."

Excerpt #4:  "Primary sources from the Mexican-American community for this topic can be found in two oral history collections. Two local newspapers, the Kansas City Kansan and the Argentine Republic and its many versions, are rich sources of information and provide insight into the popular cultural constructions and political attitudes of the twenties."

Excerpt #5:  "The chapter on Mexican-Americans in Loren Taylor’s The Consolidated Ethnic History of Wyandotte County provided oral history accounts of education experiences, along with the myth that Saturnino Alvarado sued the Kansas City Kansas Board of Education in 1926. The myth recounted there was that the case went to the Supreme Court. Parents in the Argentine district prevented Alvarado’s two children as well as two others from attending the ninth grade at Argentine High School in the fall of 1926. Through diplomatic pressure, a one-year boycott of the school, and by refusing to accept segregated alternatives, Alvarado’s children and one other student attended Argentine High School in the fall of 1927. No records of court action exist, at either the local, state or federal levels, as was reported in Taylor’s work. A more accurate but incomplete report of this conflict can be found in the summary by Francisco H. Ruiz. This study will provide the most definitive account to date of this significant example of resistance to segregated education in Kansas City. "

Chapter 4 - Resistance to Prejudice and Segregated Education in Kansas City

Excerpt #1:  "Records of interactions between the school board and the Mexican-American community in the years after the controversies of 1918-1926 were limited. The records of the school board meetings typically contained requests from the public for the use of school facilities outside of school hours. In 1930, a request by a “group of Mexicans from the Argentine district” to use the Argentine High School auditorium without charge was denied. In 1931, Dr. Clopper of Argentine joined the school board. Another request to use the Argentine Library by a “group of Mexicans” was referred to him, but the result never appeared in the Board’s proceedings. The group referred to could have been the Sociedad Morelos, the first mutualista established in Argentine in the late 1920s, and one in which Saturnino Alvarado was involved. Alvarado challenged school officials in 1926 when Anglo parents demanded removal of his two children from Argentine High School. The repeated use of the term “group of Mexicans,” implied that the Spanish name of this mutual aid society was too much trouble to record, and reflected the school board’s disdain."

Excerpt #2:  "California maintained a variety of discriminatory educational arrangements for Mexican-American students. However much school officials tried to disavow the race factor, they responded to pressure to separate Mexican students from the white community, based primarily on racial distinctions. In this respect, the Kansas City Kansas School system was no different. Officials segregated Mexican pupils because of the racism of their Anglo patrons, and sought justification afterwards. Historian Gilbert G. Gonzalez maintained that local pressures in California to segregate Mexican students were less of a factor than the practice of a national educational theory for Mexican children. He based his assertion on the widespread practice of segregation as a means of subordinating inferior races. Educators used IQ tests and language proficiency to justify segregation in California. Mexican students invariably scored lower than Anglo students, as a result of the cultural bias inherent in these tests. In Kansas City, segregation came about due to pressure from whites, rather than the influence of an educational theory. This became particularly apparent in the Alvarado case, in which four Mexican-American students were forced out of Argentine High School, because of their race. English proficiency was not an issue, nor was hygiene, and the school system officials were left with no alternative but to acknowledge that Anglo parents had forced their hand. Nevertheless, they accommodated Anglo parents to the extent of their power to do so. The 1920s through the 1950s were not a time noted for racial tolerance, and men with power in the school system were not motivated to alter the status quo in racial relations.'"

Excerpt #3:  "The fate of the four or six Major Hudson students was soon eclipsed by the Alvarado case. This incident inspired responses, albeit minimal, at the state level of government, and attracted a fair amount of publicity in the local newspapers. Four students who graduated from the all-Mexican Clara Barton school in 1925 enrolled in the all-Anglo Argentine High School that fall. The parents of these children believed in the importance of education for their sons and daughters, but did not enroll them as an act of resistance. While they experienced few problems in dealing with their classmates, Anglo parents in Argentine were extremely agitated over their presence. Newspaper accounts described the four as girls, but they were actually two boys and two girls: Jesus and Luz Alvarado, Marcos De Leon, and Victorina Pérez. No specific reason was offered for the objection to their attendance. Skin color probably played a part in the parents’ objection to the four children. Light-skinned Charles Sanchez and John Ferreira had graduated from Argentine High School in 1924, while Jesus and Luz Alvarado and Marcos De Leon had dark skin. Passing for Spanish would be an option for light-skinned Mexican-American students well into the 1940s in Argentine.

The tactics the Anglo parents employed were similar to those used in the Major Hudson incident. After the first week of the school year, Anglo parents asked the board directly to remove the students, and presented a petition with several hundred signatures. The school board refused to comply. Public and private meetings in Argentine created much tumult. This time Argentine residents conveyed the threat of violence to the Mexican community, without inciting an actual race riot. The Mexican parents responded with tactics they employed previously without success, by withdrawing their children from school, registering their protests with the Mexican consul, and refusing all attempts at compromises that enforced segregation.

The school board revealed its strong commitment to segregated education in its response to the Alvarado case. Despite the initial public refusals to meet the demands of the Anglo parents, accommodating the white community quickly became very important. Assuming the role of mediator between the Anglo and Mexican communities, the board first authorized a separate room and teacher for the four students. After that offer was refused, it investigated the options for the Mexican students in nearby Missouri schools and authorized funding for tuition and carfare. This offer was also refused by the parents and the students did not attend school anywhere for one year, while protests through diplomatic channels were pursued.  The possibility that the four students might attend high school at another district high school was not considered. This was the first group of dark-skinned Mexican-American students in Argentine that had pursued education beyond the eighth grade. Since African-Americans had their own high school, Sumner, the school system applied the policy of segregation to the Mexican students, but their numbers could not justify a separate school.

Since the Alvarado case involved high school age students, the school board could not use the arguments of linguistic deficiency to justify segregation. But they also made no overt arguments for segregation based on race. Instead, they insisted they merely sought to serve as honest brokers between the Mexican and Anglo communities in Argentine. Indeed, when they met with the parents of the children, the board maintained that they did not object to integrated schools, but emphasized their difficulties as mediators of the dispute. They even advised the Mexican parents to send their students to school, “if they thought it safe to do so.” In fact, their refusal to provide security in the schools, failed to address the needs of the Mexican population, and simultaneously, appeased the Anglo racists. Saturnino Alvarado and his wife Guadalupe, parents of students Jesus and Luz, took a stand against this form of discrimination, and eventually accomplished their goal of integrating Argentine High School. They did not accomplish this easily and sacrificed a year’s worth of education. The Alvarado case became an example of successful early resistance to discrimination in the relatively young Mexican-American community in Argentine.

Newspaper accounts followed the Alvarado case and the course of diplomatic negotiations more thoroughly than in the Major Hudson conflict. The Kansan, the school board’s official publication, started reporting on the case when Superintendent Pearson was questioned in response to diplomatic pressure by the State Assistant Attorney General Ralston on October 21, 1925. In reviewing the pertinent facts about the education of Mexican students in the district over the past seven years, the Kansan emphasized the efforts of the school board to resolve the situation. The role of Anglo parents as a pressure group for segregated education was also prominent. The school board’s confused arguments regarding English proficiency were presented as well, and in the context of a controversy involving high school students, the case seemed especially weak. In spite of the school board’s inconsistencies, Ralston did not offer the position of the state on the matter, and instead indicated a need to delay judgment until he conferred with Governor Paulen.

State Attorney General C.B. Griffith started talks in October with Harry Hayward, the Wyandotte County attorney, to work out the means by which “the rights of friendly aliens are protected,” and to “correct the condition. that exists in Wyandotte County.” When their first meeting was delayed, it was reported that the Mexican Embassy felt that the “school rumpus” violated treaties between the United States and Mexico. The follow-up report on the meeting, which took place on October 29, 1925, named the “Mother’s Club” of Argentine as the main Anglo group behind the movement to remove the Mexican-American children from Argentine High School. This was not surprising. Anglo racism did not break down along gender lines during this time, since Anglo women were involved in the creation of the Clara Barton School in Argentine.

By insisting on the right to attend Argentine High School and expressing an unwillingness to accept anything less, the Mexican parents concentrated attention on the racism of the Anglo parents. County Attorney Harry Hayward speculated that a federal injunction might force the Anglo parents to honor the terms of the existing treaty between Mexico and the United States. The focus on the Anglo parents would continue, as it was apparent that the resistance of the Mexican parents to submit to segregated alternatives would not waver. It also helped the Mexican cause that Governor Paulen actually questioned Superintendent Pearson about the justification for segregation, something which the previous Governor had declined to do.

County Attorney Hayward proved to be among the most persistent school board critics. The Kansan reported that in one meeting with Attorney General Griffith, Hayward named the P.T.A. of Argentine as one of the chief perpetrators of racial segregation. He also speculated that some federal action would be forthcoming. Hayward and Griffith concluded that because the Mexican children were considered “aliens,” the Attorney General of the Federal Government needed to take some action to ensure their rights. Prior to meeting with the local Mexican consul, Hayward expressed that the current treaty between the nations regarding the status of resident Mexican aliens had been violated, but would need to examine other documents to be certain. After Hayward met with the Mexican Consul in Kansas City, Missouri, the Mexican government renewed their efforts to pressure the State Department for action. Hayward himself concluded that the Anglo parents were “guilty of three grave federal offenses,” and charged them “with having violated the constitution, international treaty rights everywhere recognized, and the promises between Mexico and the United States.” The County Attorney predicted that a federal injunction against the Argentine parents would forbid “any further interference with the schools.” Hayward appeared to think that this was indeed an international issue, but there was never any indication that the State Department considered it to be part of their domain. Hayward was perhaps the first to state that the Anglo parents’ objections were considered “interference.” This was a view that was never expressed by the school board, whose interests often were one and the same with Anglo parents. Hayward, however, fell short of ascribing Anglo actions to racial prejudice.

Diplomatic pressure continued, and J. Garza Zertuche, the Mexican Consul General, posted in New Orleans, visited with Hayward and local Mexican consul Benigno Cantu to work out a solution. Zertuche claimed that he did not know of any “other place in the United States where trouble like this has come up.” Regarding attendance by Mexican-American students in high school, he was correct. High school attendance by Mexican-American students in the Southwest was rare, but when it occurred in Anglo schools, it did not create the controversy that it did in Argentine. In an appeal to economic concerns, he stated that segregated education created unnecessary expense to the taxpayer. As a solution to the Alvarado case, he believed that police protection should be provided by the school board to allow the children to attend, and believed it was the responsibility of the school board to affect this. At no time did the school board offer police protection, which would have been required to integrate the new Major Hudson School in 1924, and no comment from the school board was made regarding this suggestion.

The last report on the segregation issue to appear in the Kansan during this time reflected that Hayward had not heard any further news and would not do anything substantive. He simply reiterated that the Anglo parents needed to take some action. While it appeared that Hayward was somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the students, he merely continued the trend of bureaucratic “buck passing.” The standoff remained stalemated for one year, and the four students attended no school, despite the compulsory attendance law. The school board was not criticized for applying the law to the Major Hudson students by anyone except the Mexican Consulate, yet they did not pursue it against the Argentine High students. Perhaps the pressure from the federal and state levels on this case made them reluctant to force the students into a segregated educational arrangement. The fact that the Major Hudson holdouts were in the fifth grade perhaps made a difference, since the segregated old Major Hudson school was designed to accept students up to the sixth grade. There was no equivalent facility for the high school age students. On the same day that the Alvarado case first appeared in the Kansan, a Polish-American father of a fourteen-year old girl was jailed under the school attendance law, providing an example of a strict application applied to a non-Mexican parent. The school board did not test the compulsory attendance law without a segregated alternative in place.

Although County and State officials may have questioned Argentine’s segregation policies, the real agents for change were parents of school age Mexican youths. The oral history passed from generation to generation in the Mexican community credits Saturnino Alvarado as the main instigator behind the successful campaign to integrate Argentine High School. He had achieved a higher level of education than was typical of recent immigrants, and eventually established a shoemaker’s shop in the Argentine neighborhood. His granddaughter, Rose Marie Moreno Mendez, insists that he traveled to Washington to plead his case and that he initiated a court case that went to the Supreme Court. The existence of a court case at any level could not be verified and his name cannot be found in either newspaper accounts or consular correspondence. It is uncontested that Alvarado and the other parents did keep their children out of school, and pursued relief through diplomatic channels. Searches of county records revealed that this case did not proceed as a suit brought against the Kansas City Kansas Schools. It did not need to, since the Board of Education could not deny admission to those students under Plessy v. Ferguson. They were required to provide separate but equal facilities, and they were prepared to do so.

Records that would determine who was mainly responsible for the resolution of the Alvarado case are not available. Diplomatic correspondence and newspapers reports ceased to mention the case after November 1925. Local historians Loren Taylor and Judith Laird reported that the students involved were able to gain admission to the Argentine schools, and further evidence for this appeared in several sources. Joe Amayo, a contemporary of the Alvarado children who graduated after them, stated that through the efforts of “two doctors, a teacher and an attorney,” Alvarado’s children and Marcos De Leon were admitted to Argentine High School without objections in the fall of 1926. Marcos De Leon appeared in the starting lineup for the football team in October 1926. Jesus Alvarado, Luz Alvarado, and Marcos De Leon appeared in the yearbook for the first time in 1927, and were listed in the ninth grade.40 Victorina Pérez did not attend, but the other students graduated from Argentine High School in 1930. De Leon graduated from Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas, in 1934 and became a minister. They were the first dark-skinned Mexican-American high school graduates in the Kansas City Kansas School District.

The Alvarado case never reached any court of law, but the conflict typified the effects of diplomacy on local issues."

Excerpt #4:  "The Alvarado case was significant in many respects. The use of the Mexican Consul and the pursuit of the violation of their rights as resident aliens attempted to remove the focus on race, which was a far more difficult attitude to challenge during the 1920s. The parents’ refusal to accept segregated alternatives or to attend in Kansas City, Missouri, where no segregation at the high school level existed also was a strong form of resistance. This strategy relied on the fact that Mexican immigrants could not be legally segregated based on their racial status as Mexicans. It was clear that Mexican-Americans were not African-Americans and segregated education for them was not covered by existing law. The ultimate resolution came from local sources, from influential people within the Argentine community who perhaps felt that segregation beyond the eighth grade was hard to justify, except for racist reasons.

The Mexican parents presented a case that appealed to the sensibilities of the Mexican consulate, and they pursued it vigorously for a time. They forced Superintendent Pearson to explain the entire history of segregation in the district and create unfavorable publicity in the local newspaper. The ultimate significance of the Alvarado case was that segregation would end at the eighth grade in the Argentine, Kansas. While this constituted only a partial victory for racial justice, it did represent an important step forward. If the parents had accepted one of the segregated alternatives, and given the racial atmosphere in Argentine, perhaps some form of segregated high school education could have been perpetuated. The strong resistance of these parents eliminated that possibility.

Attendance by Mexican-Americans did not increase greatly as a result of the breakthrough.

Until 1939, no more than three Mexican-Americans graduated from Argentine High School in any year. One city agency reported that only three Mexican-American students attended beyond the ninth grade anywhere in the school district in 1940 and none of them were in the public schools. While the Alvarado case opened the door for Mexican-Americans, oral history accounts provide evidence that integrated education did not prevent incidents of racism, particularly among the Anglo parents, who were still reluctant to allow their children to form relationships with Mexican-Americans."

Excerpt #5:  "Investigators in the field for the Mexican Government were well aware that the justification for segregation on linguistic grounds was racist in origin and they presented studies that proved that Mexican children were as capable as other foreign children in learning English. In one 1931 study, they noted accurately that no Mexican-American students were segregated at the high school level in Kansas. Because of the Alvarado case, that was a true statement, but oversimplified. The Mexican government’s review of the state of segregated education for Mexican students in the United States actually revealed a great variety of structures and restrictions. In areas of the Southwest, the majority of students were segregated until the fifth or sixth grade, with seven or more towns in rural Texas in which students remained segregated until the eighth grade. This occurred in towns in which Mexican-American students typically did not go on to high school. The Clara Barton School was similar to the Texas model. The Mexican government was also involved with groups of citizens in California, who fought the institution or legalization of segregated education during the Depression.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was formed in Texas in 1927 and began a campaign to end the segregated education of Mexican-American students in 1930. They struggled in the courts for many years to create changes in segregated education, but did not gain a federal decision until 1949. They had some successes at the state level, which usually contained some loophole for local authorities to continue segregation."

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Saturnino Alvarado
Community Activist for the Mexican-American Students in the Argentine area of Kansas City, Kansas

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Copyright Notice: In keeping with the policy of providing free information on the Internet, this data may be used by non-commercial entities for research/information. These electronic pages cannot be reproduced in any format for profit or other gain. Printing for personal research use is encouraged, as long as this "copyright notice" is kept with the copy. Other use, including publication, storage in a retrieval system, or transmission by electronic, mechanical, or other means requires the written approval of Mr. Robert Martin Cleary and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Online preparation: Patricia Adams, USD 500, 5 Sept 2003

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History Site created 09 December, 2002

Page Updated 11-Oct-2005

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