The Lemon Grove School House: A Public History Concept
After studying the “Lemon Grove Incident” of 1931, I began to think of an effective way to present and preserve the memory of the United States’ first victory against segregation. Geared for audiences of all ages, I would choose to build a museum held in two separate buildings. One would be built as a small-scale replica of the Golden Street Elementary schoolhouse and the other would be the Olive Street schoolhouse, as they were in 1931.
The Golden Street building would have a large auditorium. The seats would be like those that were in use at the time. Volunteers from the audience would go on stage, directed by a staff member in the role of a teacher. After performing the Pledge of Allegiance, the volunteers would sit down and an automated drop-down screen would descend from the ceiling. The first part of Frank Christopher’s 1985 documentary “The Lemon Grove Incident” would play, showing how the Lemon Grove School Board and the Chamber of Commerce decided to segregate the schools.
The lights would come back on and the documentary would stop when the meeting ends. The screen would go up and a staff member who is “The Historian” would be revealed on a darkened stage with only a spotlight to illuminate them. The Historian would then conduct a short presentation, showcasing the general racist atmosphere the people of Lemon Grove had to live under: separate schools for Asians, Blacks and Native Americans on a national level, less pay than Anglo workers for equal work, and threats of deportation.
The audience would then be informed that they have to leave the Golden Street School and attend the Olive Street School immediately. They would be escorted out by staff members dressed as teachers and cross railroad tracks that are embedded in the ground, similar to the tracks that had geographically divided Lemon Grove during the 1930’s. The visitors would be led to a staircase taking them to an upstairs room. There they would see the cramped, second-rate classroom that the Mexican children were expected to learn in.
Lessons for grades five grade through eight would be on the chalkboard and there would be worn out textbooks on the desks, some in disrepair. There would be water stains on the ceiling and running down the walls to show a lack of maintenance. The windows would be dirty and there would be creaky floorboards. The room would have no temperature regulation at all. The teacher’s desk would be immaculate and expensive-looking in order to show disparity between the white teacher’s status and that of the Mexican students.
Here, a staff member playing the role of a teacher would instruct everyone to sit down and pay attention. The students would learn about how lynching and other violence occurred against Mexicans and other minorities in California following the end of the war. The teacher would move on to the influx of immigration that Lemon Grove experienced due to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Local history would then take center stage as the teacher explains how the Mexican immigrants and native-born Mexican-Americans provided most of the manual labor in the city’s industries. The teacher would play more of the 1985 documentary, covering everything up to the legal proceedings. This would show the audience how the parents of Lemon Grove decided to stand up and fight for their rights as Americans, seeking help from the Mexican Consulate and boycotting the Olive Street School.
The audience would then be instructed to go downstairs and they would enter a room with framed newspaper clippings from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s featuring the Lemon Grove case and civil rights in general, and photographs of people such as Cesar Chavez related to the struggle for equality. There would be captions that explain what was significant about each story or person in relation to the Civil Rights movement. The people who were directly involved in the Lemon Grove Incident would also be featured, to include Mexican Consul Enrique Ferreira and Mr. Fred C. Noon, and David Ruiz and Roberto Alvarez.
The visitors would then leave “the Barn” and crossing the tracks again, return to the Golden Street School. Once back in the auditorium, the rest of the documentary would play until the end. “The Historian” would then conduct another short presentation about how the institution of “Separate but Equal” would continue until the Federal government’s intervention with the ruling of Brown vs. Board of Ed. (1955), ending segregation for the entire country. The Historian would also comment on how segregation continued in California until the 1980’s in an unofficial capacity, ending with the decision of Crawford v. Los Angeles Board of Ed, filed in 1963 and decided in 1982.
The rest of the Golden Street building would contain a gift shop and a cafeteria for younger students on field trips to enjoy their sack lunches, built to look like a 1930’s era school cafeteria, with simple lunch items such as sandwiches, locally-grown fruit and juice for sale. The walls of the cafeteria would have posters featuring ads for produce and milk from the time period.
There would also be a room with interactive panels featuring websites and published articles discussing the Lemon Grove Incident, allowing visitors to learn more on their own. Similar to the Pocho Research Society’s tactics, I would include murals and plaques on the sidewalk to add more information to the presentation, adding an “urban warrior-scholar” flavor to the museum.
Finally, the location of the museum would be in Lemon Grove itself, as close to the original Olive Street Schoolhouse as possible. An alternative would be in a low-income neighborhood in the area, partly to inspire the children there to succeed in academics and to provide them with a local field trip that would add to their education proactively.