Historic courthouse commemorates landmark case, rich legacy
By JoAnn DeJesus
On November 6, 2013, the Pacific Rim Region joined the U.S. District Court, Central District of California in commemorating the rich history and legacy of the U.S. Courthouse at 312 North Spring Street in Los Angeles. The event highlighted Mendez v. the Westminster School District (1946), a case that significantly influenced school desegregation and contributed to the courthouse being declared a National Historic Landmark by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in 2012.
Built between 1937 and 1940 on the edge of Los Angeles’ civic center, the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office (as it was then named) and U.S. District Courtroom #8 became an exceptionally important site in the postwar American school desegregation efforts and the civil rights history of Mexican and Mexican–American people in the southwest. This lawsuit was filed by five Latino families whose children were denied the right to attend public schools in southern California. According to nomination documents, the resulting federal court decision “forbade segregation on the grounds that separate was not equal.” It was the first to declare the doctrine of “separate but equal” ran counter to the American law. “Mendez v. the Westminster School District marked a turning point in the legal battle against segregation in primary education and served as precedence in striking down segregation for Mexican–Americans in the southwest.”
Over 200 people attended the event with representatives from local, state and federal entities as well as Mendez and Westminster survivors. Los Angeles Service Center Director James Kane spoke on behalf of GSA, highlighting the building’s architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, and its architecture that embodies a fusion of classical and modern ideals in a style called PWA Moderne.
“This building is clearly eligible for is National Landmark designation as an intentional symbol of federal authority, the embodiment of federal presence, and for the significance of certain events that have occurred here since 1940,” said Kane. “It is also eligible on that register simply as a superb example of architecture that incorporates the characteristics of type and period and possesses high artistic values.”
Other guest speakers included the U.S. District Court, U.S. Department of the Interior, Irvine School of Law, and Superior Court of California in Orange County. Following the formal ceremony, attendees participated in self-guided tours of the courthouse and viewed a special Mendez exhibit.
Traci Madison contributed to this report.