This Day in History

Jan. 5, 1931: Lemon Grove Incident

Time Periods: 1920
Themes: Education, Latinx

On Jan. 5, 1931, Mexican-American students were barred from attending their local elementary school. The parents took the school district to court.

Read about the organizing and the court case in the article below, followed by a documentary film.

By Robert R. Alvarez Jr.
San Diego History Journal

Lemon Grove Grammar School, c. 1928. Robert Alvarez, plaintiff in “The Lemon Grove Incident,” is in the third row at far left.

[Some of] the earliest court cases concerning school desegregation occurred in the Southwest and California in the 1930s. In these cases Mexican immigrants and their communities were the targeted groups of segregation by school officials. A case of particular importance occurred in San Diego County during the 1930s, in the then rural community of Lemon Grove.

On January 5, 1931, Jerome T. Green, principal of the Lemon Grove Grammar School, acting under instructions from the school trustees, stood at the door and admitted all pupils except the Mexican students. Principal Green announced that the Mexican children did not belong at the school, could not enter, and instructed them to attend a two room building constructed to house Mexican children.

Dejected, embarrassed and angry, the Mexican children left the school and returned home. Instructed by their parents, they refused to attend the so-called new school that had been built for them. In the words of students of the time “It wasn’t a school. It was an old building. Everyone called it ‘La Caballeriza'” (the barnyard).

This was a turn of events that the school board had not counted upon. The board expected the Mexican children and families to act docile, follow orders, and attend the new school. The Mexican parents rallied together and through the Mexican Consulate, acquired legal counsel and support. The school incident became a test case of the power of the District Attorney and the school board to create a separate school for Mexican children . . .

This case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, was the first successful school desegregation court decision in the history of the United States. It is important in San Diego and U.S. history, not solely because it occurred but because the community took court action and won the case they established the rights of their children to equal education, despite local, regional and national sentiment that favored not only segregation, but the actual deportation of the Mexican population in the United States.

The case is a testimony of the San Diego Mexican community’s rights and their actions towards equality in education not only for their own children, but for the Mexican population in California and the United States. [Continue reading “The Lemon Grove Incident: The Nation’s First Successful Desegregation Court Case,” San Diego History Journal.]

Related Resources

Bilingual picture book: Todos Iguales/All Equal: Un corrido de Lemon Grove/A Ballad of Lemon Grove Written and illustrated by Christy Hale. Lee and Low Books.

Film: The Lemon Grove Incident documentary utilizes a unique combination of dramatized scenes, documentary interviews, and historical footage to document the response of the Mexican American community in Lemon Grove, California to the 1930 school board attempt to create a segregated school for the Mexican American children of the district. By Paul Espinosa, Espinosa Productions. 1986. 58 min. Released by KPBS, the film can be viewed in full for free online.

Images from the history of the Lemon Grove Incident here.

Ballad “Lemon Grove” composed by Joe DeFilippo and performed by the R.J. Phillips Band, a group of Baltimore musicians.