From the road…
Elaine Elinson, Author & Curator
Alice Piper, a 15-year-old Paiute Indian girl, knocked on the door of the recently built Big Pine Grammar and High School seeking to register for classes. She and six of her Indian friends were refused admission – denied enrollment because they were Indian. So they headed to the courthouse where they filed a lawsuit that challenged school segregation in Inyo County – and had an impact all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The year was 1923.
Last week, as I drove through the beautiful eastern Sierras, I thought about Alice. My coauthor Stan Yogi and I had learned about her California Supreme Court case while researching our book Wherever There’s a Fight. Now I was going to share her story at the Mammoth Lakes Library, which was hosting the exhibit based on the book and created by Exhibit Envoy for the Cal Humanities Searching for Democracy project. The Library is just a few miles from the small town of Big Pine (population 1,756) where Alice took her courageous stand almost a century ago.
She must have seen these same overwhelming snow-covered peaks, breathed in the clear mountain air, smelled the same heady combination of sagebrush and Jefferson Pine that we city slickers savored on our road trip.
Like so many of the other unsung heroines and heroes in our book, Alice Piper faced great hostility for her bold action. One local newspaper accused the student plaintiffs of “fomenting conflict between Indians and other regional residents.” But they persisted, winning a favorable ruling from the California Supreme Court in 1924. Her case was cited in 1947 when then-Governor Earl Warren signed the law banning racial segregation in California schools and may have been on his mind when, as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, Warren authored the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
When I shared Alice’s story at the library, County Librarian Bill Michael said that though he had lived in and studied the region for years, he only heard about the Piper case when he was a History Day judge in the 1990s. Another audience member wondered why her story isn’t being taught in the local elementary schools.
It was great to retell the account of Alice Piper and those of others who fought for civil rights in our state at the Mammoth Lakes Library. And it was wrenching to be reminded that in a place where nature is so exquisite, Alice and her classmates had to struggle so hard against the bigotry and small-mindedness of other human beings.