Virgilio G. Roel Papers, 1941-2008
Virgilio G. Roel was born in Laredo, Texas on June 2, 1922, son of Jose Garcia Roel and Josefina Gonzalez Santos de Roel who moved to Texas from Guerrero, Mexico in 1913. In 1941, Virgilio G. Roel graduated from Martin High School and then enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas on November 25, 1942.
During his three-year enlistment, Roel experienced prejudice due to his Mexican heritage. Being the only one in his battalion to be selected for the Army Specialized Training Program (where he studied geopolitics and languages at Ohio State University), Roel often felt resented by his fellow Anglo soldiers. While working at one of the Army’s headquarters, he noticed and objected to the Army’s distinction between Mexican Americans and Anglo Americans in personnel records—a particular experience and issue that would eventually influence his future professional career and advocacy. Soon after the termination of the Army Specialized Training Program, Roel was deployed to fight in the European front of World War II and was honorably discharged on December 27, 1945.
Upon his return to the United States, Virgilio G. Roel focused on his education and political activism. Starting in 1946, he attended the University of Texas at Austin under the auspices of the GI Bill. At the University of Texas, Roel helped organize the Laredo Club, an organization dedicated to civic affairs and activism. Along with his Laredo Club peers, Roel at one point challenged Texas Attorney General Price Daniel on his views about segregating Mexican American children based on their language proficiency.
Academically, Roel focused much of his undergraduate work on the issues concerning Hispanic civil rights. His community service reflected his academic passions. On weekends, Roel and his Laredo Club peers would travel to Mexican American communities to help citizens organize and qualify to vote. Much like his experience in the Army, his experience at the University of Texas would continue to influence and fuel his passion for equal civil rights in his profession. In 1948, Roel graduated with a degree in international relations and Magna Cum Laude honors.
After graduating, Roel moved to Washington, D.C. where he attended and graduated from Georgetown Law School. He passed the D.C. bar exam in 1952 and returned to Texas, where he served with the Border Patrol in McAllen. After passing the Texas bar exam in 1954, he partnered with Robert P. Sanchez and Eduardo Idar, Jr. (Sanchez’s and Idar’s papers are also at the Benson) to set up a law firm in McAllen, Texas. The Mexican American partners immediately faced prejudice in their attempt to finance their firm. Under the influence of Anglo attorneys, local banks denied the partners loans. Regardless, the partners succeeded in establishing their firm.
At first, much of their work was pro-bono since their clientele was primarily disadvantaged Mexican Americans. As time passed, their finances improved and their activism increased, representing the Hispanic American community at the local, state, and national level. Much of their work involved defending the rights of exploited Mexican American workers and fighting for improved wages and working conditions. Roel was particularly interested in securing employment for Mexican Americans from commuting illegal immigrants, to the extent that at one point he participated in a lawsuit against Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration in Washington D.C.
On June 1, 1957, Virgilio Roel married Emilia Salinas and together they had four children: Laura Graciela, Virgilio Homero, Diana Iris, and Aida Emile. In 1962, Roel was appointed Associate Justice of the High Court of American Samoa where he served until 1967. He eventually returned to Washington, D.C. when the White House appointed him to the position of General Attorney and Member of the Board of Appeals and Review of the Post Office Department. In this position, Roel was instrumental in recruiting women, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans into the administrative levels of the organization.
In 1971, he was appointed to serve as National Director of Conciliation in Washington, D.C., where he enforced the Equal Housing Opportunity laws throughout the U.S. and its territories. As the first Mexican American to serve in this role, Roel was appointed as a Member of the Appeals Review Board of the U.S. Civil Service Commission in 1974. In this capacity, much of his work and effort was focused on equal employment opportunity for Hispanic Americans in federal law enforcement agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the U.S. Immigration Agency.
Throughout his time in Washington, D.C., Roel continued his civil rights activism. Roel co-founded the first national Latino lobbying group that would later become ‘El Congreso.’ In March of 1972, Roel was instrumental in opening and operating the Hemisphere National Bank, the first Mexican American owned national bank in Washington, D.C. Even after his retirement from federal public service in 1979, Roel continued to fight for Hispanic American civil rights through his private practice and consulting firm.
From 1979 until 1982, Roel’s work as an attorney and consultant focused on the rights of the Hispanic American contractor industry. He was at the forefront in the legal battle against the U.S. Department of Transportation’s redefinition of the term ‘Hispanic’ that inevitably disqualified many Hispanics from federal works and funds allocated to minority firms. Eventually winning the battle in 1982, Roel soon after became an advisor for the U.S. Department of Transportation and Department of Commerce in their attempts to recruit minorities in the Departments and their federal programs.
Roel remained active in advocating Hispanic American civil and economic rights through the American GI Forum and the Hemisphere National Bank. In 1991, Roel moved with his family to Austin where he focused his efforts on keeping Mexican American youth in school.
Materials in the Virgilio G. Roel papers range from 1941-2008, with the bulk from 1946-1983. The collection documents Virgilio G. Roel’s involvement in the advancement of Hispanic American civil and economic rights as a student, soldier, public servant, attorney, and judge. The collection primarily consists of correspondence with multiple offices of U.S. Federal and state governments and Hispanic American associations, in particular the Hispanic American Contractors Association. Financial documents, military and personal records, published materials, and handwritten notes make up the remainder of the collection. Photographs and ephemera (newspapers and a bound volume) are small in quantity and primarily concern Roel's high school and college years in the 1940s.
Series 1, High School Records, is comprised of both handwritten records and graduation ephemera, with the bulk of material from 1941. Materials include a graduation speech, correspondence, Roel's yearbook, and a few photographs.
Series 2, World War II Military Service Records, concerns Roel's service in the U.S. Armed Forces, primarily spanning 1942-1946. Documents include birth certificates, immunization records, correspondence, income records, military assignments and certifications.
Series 3, College & Extracurricular Service Records, concerns Roel's undergraduate activism as a University of Texas student, including his involvement in the Laredo Club, the Laredo Club Alumni Association, and the UT Pre-Law Society. Activities are documented through correspondence, academic notes and papers, clippings, photographs and organization records.
Series 4, Zapata County Voting Legal Investigation, documents Roel's investigation of voter fraud in a Zapata County general election from 1954 to 1957. Detailed ledgers, voter lists, absentee ballots, and correspondence with Mexican American voters and the United States District Court for the Laredo Division form the series. Some contents of this series can also be found in series 11, Oversized Materials.
Series 5, American GI Forum, concerns Roel's participation in the American G.I. Forum (organization advocating the rights of Mexican American veterans) and its founder, Dr. Hector P. Garcia. The series consists primarily of annual meeting programs, bulletins, clippings, pamphlets from Garcia’s funeral in 1996, and correspondence with other members. Some contents of this series can also be found in series 11, Oversized Materials.
Series 6, Immigration Affairs Legal Counsel Files, relates to Roel's advocacy for the protection of Mexican American jobs on the U.S.-Mexico border. The series contains correspondence (1959-1961) with the U.S. Department of Labor, AFL-CIO, U.S. Congress, Vice-President Johnson, and President John F. Kennedy. Materials also include congressional records, petitions, press releases, transcribed speeches, and documents concerning Roel’s lawsuit against Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Some contents of this series are in series 11, Oversized Materials.
Series 7, U.S. Federal Government Employment, contains documents relating to Roel’s public service, federal office positions, and his involvement with the National Association of Spanish-Surnamed Americans (NASSA). This series consists of correspondence, invitations, legal briefs, press releases, photographs, administrative records of NASSA, and Roel’s employment records, including personal actions, income statements, and retirement records.
Series 8, Hemisphere National Bank Records, concerns the establishment and operations of the Hemisphere National Bank, Washington, D.C.'s first Hispanic-owned bank. Correspondence and meeting agendas from 1972 to 1982 make up the bulk of the series. Also included are two annual reports, 1991 and 1992, showing the bank’s name change from Hemisphere National Bank to Capital Bank, N.A. Some contents of this series can also be found in series 11, Oversized Materials.
Series 9, Hispanic American Contractors’ Legal Counsel Files, comprises almost a third of the collection and documents Roel’s legal representation of Hispanic American construction associations and firms. The bulk of the material concerns Roel's and the Hispanic American Contractors Association's dispute with the Department of Transportation’s redefinition of the term ‘Hispanic’ that disqualified several firms from federally-funded works. The series primarily consists of correspondence with various regional and national Hispanic associations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, U.S. Congress members, and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation from 1978-1982. Reference materials, legal files against the Government of the District of Columbia, meeting agendas, conference materials, and legal incorporation documents for several Hispanic contractors associations are also a part of this series.
Series 10, Government Hispanic Affairs Consultant Files, concerns Judge Roel’s role as advisor to the U.S. Department of Transportation and Department of Commerce in the recruitment of Hispanics for federally-funded equal employment opportunity programs from 1982-1986. The bulk of the content is promotional and reference materials with some correspondence.
Series 11, Oversized Materials, contains voter lists, a sample ballot, and a newspaper from Zapata County, newspapers concerning the American G.I. Forum from 1961-1996, and a Mexican American work contract and agreement from 1951. The series also contains a ledger, address lists, and floor plans for the Hemisphere National Bank.
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Cite as: Virgilio G. Roel Papers, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin.
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