Lemon Grove Incident
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The Lemon Grove Case (Roberto Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District), commonly known as the Lemon Grove Incident, was the United State’s first successful school desegregation case. The incident occurred in 1930 and 1931 in Lemon Grove, California, where the local school board attempted to build a separate school for children of Mexican origin. On March 30, 1931, the Superior Court of San Diego County ruled that the local school board’s attempt to segregate 75 Mexican and Mexican American elementary school children was a violation of California state laws because ethnic Mexicans were considered White under the state’s Education Code. Although often overlooked in the history of school desegregation, the Lemon Grove Case is increasingly heralded as the first victory over segregative educational practices and as a testimony to the Mexican immigrant parents who effectively utilized the U.S. legal system to protect their children’s rights.
The segregation of Mexican and Mexican American children was commonplace throughout the Southwest in the early-to-mid 1900s.  While the California Education Code did not explicitly allow for the segregation of children of Mexican descent, approximately 80% of California school districts with substantial Mexican and Mexican American populations were segregated. The other 20% of school districts maintained partial forms of segregation, such as segregated classrooms within mixed schools. School boards in cities such as Pasadena, Santa Ana, Riverside, and Los Angeles offered various rationales for such segregation. Many districts relied on linguistic arguments, claiming that segregation was necessary given English “language handicaps”. Others cited the need to train Mexican and Mexican American youth for “appropriate” jobs. Several districts argued that “Americanization” schools were necessary to properly assimilate Mexican and Mexican American youth. Authorities often promised that Mexican and Mexican American youth could be integrated upon their mastery of the English language and their complete Americanization; yet these pledges almost always went unfulfilled. Records indicate that such “Mexican schools” had substandard facilities, shorter school years, and poorer quality of instruction.
In this context, the integrated grammar school of Lemon Grove was an anomaly. The Mexican and Mexican American students, children to the fifty-odd Mexican immigrant families from Baja California, accounted for about half of the school’s 169 students. On July 23, 1930, the all-Anglo Lemon Grove school board decided to build a separate school for children of Mexican heritage without giving notice to their parents. The plan was discussed by the school board and subsequently endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and local PTA. By August, the board felt that the “situation had reached emergency conditions” due to overcrowding and “sanitary and moral” issues stemming from the Mexican and Mexican American youth.
On January 5, 1931, Lemon Grove Grammar School principal Jerome Green, acting under instructions from school trustees, turned away Mexican children at the schoolhouse door, directing them to the new school, which came to be known within the local Mexican American community as la caballeriza, meaning "the stable". However, the parents had instructed their children to return home if this were to happen, and the children obeyed. The parents refused to send their children to the new school, and since they were not allowed back at the main schoolhouse, this resulted in a boycott.
Despite their lack of representation in official channels of power such as the PTA or the Chamber of Commerce, the parents quickly organized El Comité de Vecinos de Lemon Grove (the Lemon Grove Neighbors Committee). The parents sought the assistance of the Mexican consul in San Diego, Enrique Ferreira, who put them in touch with two attorneys. The Comité also sought the support of the broader Mexican and Mexican American community on both sides of the border; the community responded with both moral and financial support that allowed the Comité to cover the costs of the upcoming lawsuit.
Lawsuit, trial, and decision
The Comité, with the assistance of the two attorneys, filed a suit against the Lemon Grove School Board in the Superior Court of California in San Diego on February 13, 1931. Submitted in the name of Mexican American student Roberto Alvarez, the petition accused the school board of “an attempt at racial segregation… by separating and segregating all the children of Mexican parentage”. The suit also pointed out that 95% of the children who the school board sought to segregate were U.S. citizens and thus “entitled to all the rights and privileges common to all citizens of the United States.
The Lemon Grove school board denied all of the suit’s allegations and, asking school boards throughout the Southwest, insisted that the separate facility was designed for the benefit of the Mexican and Mexican American youth. The Board maintained that the school was not designed to segregate Mexican children; rather, it argued: 1) that the new facility could house up to 85 pupils and that it boasted a fully equipped playground, 2) that the facility was located in the predominantly Mexican area of town so that children could travel safely to school without risking the walk across the main road, 3) that the majority of the children lacked sufficient knowledge of English and could benefit from special attention, and 4) that it was an Americanization school in which “backward and deficient” children could receive better, and more appropriate, instruction. The evidence revealed in trial challenged the “backward and deficient” characterization of the Mexican and Mexican American children and, most pointedly, the board’s location and language arguments.
The landmark lawsuit resulting from the "Lemon Grove Incident" became the first successful school desegregation court decision in the history of the United States. On March 30, 1931, the presiding Judge Chambers issued his ruling in favor of Roberto Alvarez. The judge repudiated each of the school board’s claims. Although allowing that the school board could “separate a few children to offer special instruction,” he wrote, “to separate all the Mexicans in one group can only be done by infringing the laws of the State of California.” In the decision, the judge ruled that children of Mexican origin could not be segregated under the laws of the state of California, because they were "of the Caucasian race", and laws allowing the segregation of "Oriental", "Negro", and "Indian" children therefore did not apply.
The decision was not appealed, in large part due to the perceived risk of further financial burdens to the district and negative public image. For decades, the only official mention of the court case in local records came in the notes of a post-trial school board meeting, “All members of the board present. On account of having lost the court decision there was some discussion about the return of Mexican (children) pupils but only a spirit of good will prevailed, and it was decided that everything was to continue exactly as it did prior to January 5th.” Not even the history of the Lemon Grove School from 1880 to 1966, prepared by a former superintendent, referenced the case.
The ruling did result in the immediate re-entrance of the Mexican and Mexican American students to the grammar school; yet, the ruling did not have concrete implications for desegregation in other segregated California schools. It was not until over a decade later, with Mendez v. Westminster, that schools desegregated statewide.
Despite its initial obscurity and limited broader impact, the Lemon Grove Case has increasingly gained recognition for its place in the trajectory of school desegregation as the first successful desegregation case. Moreover, scholars agree that the case constitutes a testament to the Mexican immigrant families who, despite a hostile political climate, refused to accept separate and inferior educations for their children and who leveraged the U.S. legal system to challenge such a violation of their children’s rights.  As noted by historian Robert Alvarez Jr., “This was the first situation when a group of immigrants had gotten together, challenged a school board and won.” Some scholars also believe that the case may have contributed to the defeat of a bill in the California state legislature (commonly known as the “Bliss Bill”) that would have made it legal to segregate children of Mexican descent under the state’s education code. At the local level, too, the case has received recognition. On March 9, 2007, the Lemon Grove School District recognized Roberto Alvarez, the schoolboy who was the lead plaintiff in the case. The auditorium at the Lemon Grove Middle School, which is on the site of the former grammar school, was dedicated in his honor.
- Clark v Board of School Directors, an 1868 case in Iowa
- "The Lemon Grove Incident: The Nation’s First Successful Desegregation Court Case" by Robert Alvarez, Jr. The Journal of San Diego History Spring 1986, Volume 32, Number 2
- Different Shade of Brown: Latinos and School Desegregation, A by Kristi Bowman. Judicature 2004, Volume 88: 85
- Black, White, and Brown: Latino School Desegregation Efforts in the Pre- and Post-Brown vs. Board of Education Era by James A. Ferg-Caldina, 2004.
- The Unheralded History of the Lemon Grove Desegregation Case by Michael E. Madrid. Multicultural Education 2008, Volume 15, Number 3: 15-19.
- The new face of school desegregation by Kristi Bowman. Duke Law Journal 2001: 1751-1808
- Before Brown: 23 years prior to landmark decision, Mexican-Americans win suit against Lemon Grove school board that had banned their children by Leonel Sanchez. San Diego Union Tribune, May 18, 2004.
- South by southwest: Mexican Americans and segregated schooling, 1900-1950 by Vicki L. Ruiz. OAH Magazine of History 2001, Volume 15, No. 2: 23-27.
- Lemon Grove School District Dedicates Auditorium to Civil Rights Hero Robert Alvarez, Lemon Grove School District Website Announcement, archived September 29, 2007
- School to honor desegregation pioneer by Leonel Sanchez, San Diego Union-Tribute, March 7, 2007