Monday, May 2, 2011

Tempe Normal School (ASU)

Residents of San Pablo, AZ, in front of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, circa 1892 (photo courtesy of

Students of the Tempe Normal School in front of the original Old Main building (photo courtesy of
View in front of Old Main on ASU's Tempe campus, April 2011 (photo by Erin Seivley)

Tempe Normal School (now Arizona State University) is a square mile campus bordered by University Dr. and Apache Blvd. to the north and south, and Mill Ave. and Rural Rd. to the east and west.

What is known today to be ASU has a long history dating back to before this area was even know as Tempe. Charles Trumbull Hayden, a famous entrepreneur who made his money as a merchant in Tucson, was travelling through the Valley on his way to Prescott when the Salt River flooded. He climbed the butte, which is now known as Tempe Butte or “A” Mountain and realized that if the Native Americans and Mexicans could live there, he could start a thriving town on the river. In December 1870, Hayden built a flourmill and a lot of other infrastructure in the bustling town later named as Hayden’s Ferry, often with Mexican immigrants doing most of the manual labor.

As the city grew, the Mexican community who had been living as farmers and ranchers on the land for many years before Hayden arrived became increasingly unsettled with the way the city was developing. Although they were promised certain lands and property for the work they did, they were never granted them and decided to form their own community. According to historian Marsha Weisiger, “[The Mexicans of San Pablo] learned that their title to the land which they had developed was not recognized and that the land was designated as a school section.” The Mexicans moved to 80 acres on the east side of the butte and lived in a separate town known as San Pablo. 

Across the street from San Pablo, five acres were donated to build the Territorial Normal School after House Bill 154 passed with the 13th Legislature on March 12, 1885. The school was established as an institution to instruct teachers on how to teach the norms of society to their students, as well as agricultural and mechanical skills. It officially opened its one building on February 8th, 1886 and its teaching program ran for 16 weeks. Hiram B. Farmer, who would later have his name on one of the education buildings at ASU, was the only faculty and the first enrollment had 33 students, 20 women and 13 men. Farmer also took care of the maintenance around the small campus. The first class graduated in 1887.

The Normal School had training schools throughout the town; one 4th grade, one 3rd grade, one 2nd grade, and two 1st grade classes with about 12 students each. When the grammar school was built on 10th and Mill in 1914, the elementary school on 8th became one for primarily the Mexican children from San Pablo. The white teachers and citizens of Tempe believed that this segregation, along with more teachers per class and special attention was better for the Mexican American students and would keep them in school. The Eighth Street School gained statewide notoriety as a result of a 1925 lawsuit, Romo v. Laird, which challenged an agreement between Tempe Elementary School District No. 3 and Tempe Normal School to operate the school as a “Mexican training school” for Mexican American children. While Mexican American parents won the right to send their children to Tempe’s nearby “American” public school, Tempe Normal School and the district also secured the right under “separate but equal” laws to continue operating the segregated training school and its “Americanization” curriculum until its closure in 1945.

Since then, the Tempe Normal School evolved from a territorial school to an accredited four-year university that is world-renowned in many different fields. It is now known as Arizona State University and is the largest university in the United States. Someone who walks around campus can see the university’s rich history and traditions, including the naming of many buildings on campus after influential leaders in Tempe, including Hayden Library and the Hiram B. Farmer Education building.

This racial segregation in schooling is something has been prevalent throughout the history of this country. Unfortunately, the city of Tempe is part of that history. In fact, the state of Arizona and especially the Salt River Valley, is still heavily involved in the Mexican immigration debate. According to author Laura Gomez (2008), the idea of “Manifest Destiny” is very prevalent especially in the Southwest. This belief that whites have a “divine right” to any area they want, and to control/get rid of the people who live there. This unfortunately was the case here in Tempe. However, the city has done a lot to fix the problems of its past including ending the segregation, allowing the Mexican community to rebuild Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, and allowing the history of the Mexican American citizens of San Pablo to be told along with the illustrious history of Arizona State University.

- Erin Seivley and Zack Wallace


City of Tempe. (1994). San Pablo. Retrieved April 10, 2011, from Tempe History Museum:
Gomez, L. E. (2008). Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. New York: NYU Press.
Hermann, W. (2008, May 28). Uncovering pre-Tempe, Hohokam site. The Arizona Republic , pp. A1-A2.
Ruiz, V., & Sanchez Korrol, V. (2006). Latinas in the United States : A Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Weisiger, M. (1977). This History of Tempe, Arizona: 1871-1930, A preliminary report. Tempe: Tempe Historical Society.

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