By Helen Johnson
What do these three things have in common? They all came together in Cotulla, Texas, in the late 1920s. The Mexican-Texan students at that time in many towns in the state, including Cotulla, didn’t have a school to attend. They were not allowed to attend the regular schools. The Postmistress in Cotulla, a woman named Florence Chiles Maltsberger, thought that was wrong, and she eventually persuaded the county government to build a school for the Mexican children. The school was named The Welhausen School, after LaSalle county judge, G. A. Welhausen.
The school (pictured below) was built in 1927 and in 1928, a new teacher, one Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) came to town to teach at the Mexican school. Yes, it was that Lyndon B. Johnson who would become the 36th president of the United States. Mrs. Maltsberger, known as “La Florita,” because of her efforts on behalf of the Mexican Texan community in Cotulla, worked with Johnson to try and improve conditions at the school. Through her efforts, the city and county donated the block across from the school to the community as a park. The park was named after her, Florita Plaza. Mrs. Maltsberger managed to get a surplus building placed there and it became a community center.
The park and school became the center of Mexican-Texan community life in Cotulla. There are references in the local paper to numerous celebrations and dances held there. Places like Florita Plaza were very important to Mexican-Texans all through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because they did not often have spaces of their own to gather, celebrate, and dance together.
LBJ spent a year teaching math and history to fifth, sixth, and seventh graders in order to earn some much needed money to further his own education. By all accounts, the experience had a profound effect on him and was something he never forgot. It spurred him on in his “War on Poverty,” and intensified his determination to get equal access to education for all children.
In 2019, a statue of a youthful Johnson was placed in front of The Welhausen School by the town of Cotulla. In 2021, both the school and Florita Plaza were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city of Cotulla has recently restored the park and it continues to be a place of importance for the Mexican-Texan community there.