Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark case desegregating public schools, Brown v Board of education. As powerful and transformative as this court case was, there were other civil rights cases that had been fought and won prior to Brown.
According to the archives of the Texas State Bar Association, on March 2, 1945, the attorney representing Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez and some 5,000 other persons of “Mexican and Latin descent” filed a class action lawsuit against the Westminster School District of California. In a radio interview with NPR Morning Edition’sShereen Marisol Meraji the daughter of Gonzalo and Felicitas, Sylvia Mendez, recants how “their case went all the way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1947 they won: Segregation in those districts ended, and the rest of the state followed.” Even before this case in California, there was indeed a much earlier case that set the landscape for desegregation of public accommodations.
In the March 2005 monthly newsletter of the Metro Transit Authority of New York City Judith C. Lovell of MetroCard Customer Relations wrote about a case all but lost in the obscurity of history.In 1854 Elizabeth Jennings Graham’s New York streetcar incident led to the first successful lawsuit against public transit by a woman of color against segregation.Interestingly enough, according to a New York Times article written by Katharine Greider, then 21 year old President to be Chester Arthur represented Ms. Jennings, winning her case on July 16, 1854. The New York City Metro Transit Authority museum has a small exhibit dedicated to her story.