Editor's Note: Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the case of Alvarez v. Lemon Grove Board of Trustees, commonly known as the Lemon Grove Incident.
The pioneering school desegregation lawsuit predated the landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision of 1954.
The lawsuit to prevent the segregation of Lemon Grove schools put the tiny farming community near San Diego on the map, but not in the way the town likely wanted.
Lemon Grove Historical Society President Helen Ofield shared the following history of the case with Patch.
On Mar. 9, Judge Claude Chambers in San Diego Superior Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the families of some 75 Mexican-American pupils in the Lemon Grove Grammar School, who took the tiny school district to court when the school board, chamber of commerce and PTA tried to segregate the children into a separate school under the guise of "Americanization" for children needing better English skills, etc.
Of course, most of the children were U.S. citizens and spoke English well.
The school, which cost $5K, a goodly sum at the dawn of the Great Depression, was a somewhat rudimentary affair built in fall 1930 and, as a consequence, called "La Caballeriza" ("the barnyard") by the families.
The case erupted on Jan. 5, 1931 when the children returned from Christmas vacation. Principal Jerome Greene, a reluctant messenger at best, was ordered to stand in the schoolhouse door, greet the children and send the 75 to La Caballeriza with two teachers and a U.S. flag, no school nurse and no playground equipment.
But word travels fast in a small town. There was already a rumor alive and well about the plot; the children went home, but for one family, Ceseña. The families called themselves Los Vecinos (The Neighbors) and, with great dignity, restraint and political prowess, went to the Mexican Consulate downtown and obtained the services of Noon & Noon, Attorneys at Law. Fred Noon was a "civil rights lawyer" decades before that term. The families boycotted the school district. The case was covered in the old San Diego Union with headlines like "Day 15 of the Lemon Grove School Strike."
The lead plaintiff was a talented boy, Roberto Alvarez, who grew up to found Coast Citrus, the multinational produce powerhouse with offices from here to Florida and north to L.A. Don Roberto died in 2002. Roberto Alvarez Auditorium is named for him at Lemon Grove Academy for the Sciences and Humanities. That was a gala day. The Historical Society held a 75th anniversary party in the Lee House, replete with a student play about the case on which we had collaborated.
The case was the first successful, court-ordered school desegregation case in the United States, predating Brown versus the Board in Topeka by 23 years. In that case, Thurgood Marshall and his team cited the Lemon Grove case as precedent and that's largely how they won the landmark case. But it all started in a tiny, whistle stop town away out West that nobody had ever heard of!
Interestingly, the case locally was won on a technicality -- Mexican-Americans are technically Caucasian and thus couldn't be discriminated against under California's laws that in the 'Thirties made it legal to discriminate against Indians, Asians and Blacks.
There is an excellent book, "Familia," by Robert Alvarez, Jr., son of Don Roberto. In the late 1990s we got it reprinted so that copies could be placed in our local schools and library.