Colorado’s Lesser Known School Desegregation Case

students sit with heads bowed in a classroom in what looks like the late 1940's
In 1914, Maestas v. Shone successfully challenged discriminatory student placement practices in Alamosa, Colorado. / Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash.

Nearly four decades before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Colorado’s district court ruled in Maestas v. Shone. 

It was one of the nation’s first successful school desegregation cases and challenged discriminatory student placement practices in Alamosa, Colorado. The Alamosa Courier published the district court’s full decision in March 1914, noting the case challenged the City of Alamosa’s practice of funneling some students into the south side school which was known then as “the Mexican Preparatory school.” 

According to the decision written by 12th Judicial District Judge Charles Holbrook, students the school system assumed couldn’t speak English were placed in the south side school rather than the city’s north side school, even if the north side school was significantly closer to students’ homes. 

Francisco Maestas brought forward the suit on behalf of himself and others who were placed in the south side school based on their race and color alone. According to an earlier report from the Alamosa Courier, the suit was “​​directed against George H. Shone, C. L. Lahrmann and Joseph H. Darling as the board of education of school district No. 3, and George O. Thompson, as superintendent.” 

The school argued it only placed some students in the south side school because it claimed that school was better equipped to speak both English and Spanish and once students gained a working knowledge of English, they would be transferred to the north side school. Holbrook noted in his decision the transfer to the north side school was arbitrarily set at the completion of fourth grade, which was the highest grade taught at the south side school. Holbrook added, “though some in the lower grades may be able, and doubtless are able, to speak English.”

“[T]he evidence nevertheless tends to show that there are children in different grades in the Mexican Primary School who know enough English to understand instruction in the same grades in the other schools,” Holbrook wrote. “[I]n the opinion of the court, the only way to destroy this feeling of discontent and bitterness which has recently grown up is to allow all children so prepared to attend the schools nearest to them.”

Holbrook ruled the school needed to admit Maestas and all students to the closest public school in the city to their homes. The court noted Maestas’ and all other admissions should be carried out “without any distinction or classification on account of his race or color.” Holbrook also ordered Shone, Lahrmann, Darling and Thompson to pay for the court action. 

Holbrook gave the school district until April 6, 1914 to start complying with the order and noted the district needed to extend that consideration at the beginning of every semester from then on.

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