Coach, team took bite out of segregation
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 14, 2005

Postgame meal taught players lesson in equality

Josh Kelley

It was 1951, and Gilbert High School's six-man football team had just finished a game at Gila Bend.

The school recently had integrated to include all Black and Hispanic students in Gilbert.

One of these new students was Curtis Hester, a speedy running back who was the first Black student to graduate from Gilbert High.

According to Hester's teammate, Dale Hallock, the players were hungry after the game and the team's head coach, Rex Phelps, decided that they would eat at a cafe before making the drive back to Gilbert.

Phelps entered one of two cafes in Gila Bend at the time and said he had a team of boys who needed to eat supper.

He asked if the cafe would serve Black players, said Hallock, who would later become mayor of Gilbert.

The cafe said it would only serve the Black players outside the building.

"The coach told 'em to stick it," Hallock said.

The team went down the road to the other cafe in town where "they served us all," Hallock said.

A handful of Black students attended Gilbert High, because in a town of about 1,000 people who were mostly White and Hispanic farmers, there weren't many Blacks.

Hester's schoolmates included a few relatives and at least two other Black students. One of them was Madison Neighbors, a friend of Hallock's who now lives in Washington, D.C.

Before the early 1950s, Blacks went to grammar school in Mesa. Before that, there was a school for Blacks that operated in a home in Gilbert.

To attend high school, Blacks traveled from Gilbert to Carver High School near Van Buren and Seventh streets in Phoenix, Hallock said.

There was also a separate school for Hispanic students until 1949. It was called the Mexican School and was in a building just south of Gilbert High and the town's grammar school on Gilbert Road.

A few Hispanic students born to wealthier parents were allowed to attend school with Whites. But most went to school separately until sixth grade, at which point their education usually ended.

"The culture just felt like, hey, you learned to read and write, and now you can just go on," Hallock said.

Marji Scotten, coordinator of the Gilbert Historical Museum, said it was often a matter of practicality for Hispanics to end their education early.

"They just didn't feel like they could go to high school because they felt they needed to help the families on the farm or make money for the families," Scotten said.

When she moved to Gilbert in 1951, Scotten attended the last half of sixth grade at the grammar school. She said it wasn't until she began volunteering with the museum three years ago that she learned there was a separate school for Hispanic students.

"When I went to school, I had Mexican friends," Scotten said. "We all got along. I hung out with the Mexican kids. We all did."

Anna Marie Rosales Hernandez began at the Mexican School in 1936.

In a letter on display in the Gilbert Historical Museum, Rosales Hernandez portrays a school that limited the achievements of its students, many of whom were 16 or 17 by the time they finished the sixth grade, she said.

Rosales Hernandez wrote that and her sister were the only two students to graduate from the high school over a period of three to four years.

She wrote that Hispanic students were restricted from walking too close to White students playing outside school buildings.

For Rosales Hernandez, the argument for segregated schools made no sense. That argument, at least the one given in public, was that schools were kept separate because Hispanic students could not keep up in classes taught in English.

"My brothers, my sisters and I could speak, read and write English," she wrote. "We spoke English and Spanish around our house all the time."

There were some bright spots at the school, particularly Wayne McFrederick, who taught at the Mexican School for 10 years beginning in January 1933 at the age of 21.

McFrederick would later serve as mayor from June 1939 to June 1943. He sincerely cared for the students at the Mexican School where, according to the Gilbert Historical Museum, and the children affectionately called him El Viejo - the old man.

McFrederick would play sports with the students, sing with them and take them on short trips.

In his own words in a letter to the school, McFrederick wrote:

"My goal was to help the kids in basic math, reading, English, writing and to have a sense of being somebody. I hope I had a little success."