Blacks in a Border County

Editor’s Note: For many years, the myth of the three co-existing cultures-Native, Hispano and Anglo-held great currency in New Mexico. Besides glossing over conflicts, this perspective ignored the presence and contributions of other peoples such as
African-Americans. As New Mexico’s Centennial of Statehood celebration gets underway, it is timely then, to review the histories and struggles of a small but historically significant population in the development of modern New Mexico.

The following story is part of Frontera NorteSur’s Enduring Legacies series and is made possible by grants from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, New Mexico Humanities Council, National Endowment for the Humanities and the McCune Charitable Foundation. The author is solely responsible for the contents of the articles.

Blacks in a Border County

Sometimes the simplest of things can bring back cherished memories. Gazing at on old log resting on the ground outside the old Dunbar Elementary School in Vado, New Mexico, Mitch Boyer remembers playing on the object when he was a young child. And he recalls attending an all-Black school which had one teacher for multiple grades, an outhouse and no cafeteria.

“We were the last class here in 1957 before they integrated the Gadsden District and allowed us to go to other schools,” says the longtime resident of this small Mesilla Valley town that sits under the craggy peaks of the Organ Mountains.

Now in his 61st year and the chair of Vado’s village council, Boyer comes from a family that was instrumental in developing a growing community located about 20 minutes north of the US-Mexico border in southern New Mexico’s Dona Ana County.

His grandfather, Francis Boyer, led an African-American double exodus of sorts to New Mexico, co-founding the Pecos Valley community of Blackdom at the beginning of the 20th century and then relocating to Vado with other Blacks in the early 1920s.

Set back by the drying up of Blackdom’s artesian wells, Francis Boyer was undaunted. To the southwest, the Georgia native found fertile if thicket-filled land in the Mesilla Valley, where the completion of Elephant Butte Dam just to the north in 1915-16 was heralding a new age of irrigation and commercial farming.

Rolling up their sleeves, the Boyers cleared the brush known as bosque and began cultivating a crop that had long held sway in the South but was just making a big splash in New Mexico: King Cotton. Soon thereafter, Boyer platted the town of Vado. Ever community-minded, the new town father established a church and a school.

To reach New Mexico, Francis Boyer originally walked with two students from Georgia, his grandson says.

A graduate of Georgia’s renowned Morehouse College, Francis Boyer was a
“visionary” for his efforts at convincing fellow African Americans to leave the Jim Crow of the South for the Land of Enchantment, according to Mitch Boyer.

“He was very, very big on education,” Boyer says. “All of his kids and grand kids, he encouraged to go to college.”

Running ads in southern newspapers, Francis Boyer began to “recruit many, many Blacks to this land,” Boyer adds. “He was known then as the Black Moses,” and a man who emerged as a “great entrepreneur and businessman.”

Other Boyers figure in the history of Vado. The late Roosevelt Africanus Boyer Jr., who passed away in 2009, served as president of the Vado Mutual Domestic Water Association for many years. Shortly before his death, Roosevelt Boyer helped form the Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority, a grouping of small water utilities that banded together to provide service to Vado and surrounding communities known as colonias. In his long life, Boyer worked as an electrical engineer, farmed pecans and vegetables and involved himself in the Baptist Church.

In the early years, Francis Boyer’s successes evidently stirred the jealousies of some local Anglos; one evening, a Ku Klux Klan cross was set ablaze at the Boyer residence. Years later, Mitch Boyer found out who lit the cross. Turns out, it was a longtime family friend who committed the act at the tender age of 10 or 12. “He had no idea what the Klan’s philosophy was or why he was doing it,” Boyer says. “He knew that they paid him a dollar-and-a-half to do it…”

In Dona Ana County, racism was most visible in the school segregation that was imposed by Anglos of southern descent after the New Mexico Legislature gave local governments the option to separate the races in the classroom beginning in 1925. Previously, Blacks and Whites had attended school together, says Clarence Fielder, retired New Mexico State University (NMSU) history professor and the state’s preeminent scholar on local African-American history. According to Fielder, the outsiders sought to maintain a racial hierarchy developed elsewhere.

“They didn’t want their children going to school with the servants’ children, so they segregated the schools,” Fielder says.

Segregation in Dona Ana County, however, departed from practices in the South and was largely confined to the classroom, Fielder is quick to point out.

“Blacks lived all over Las Cruces, the same way with Hispanics, and they had good relations, although you didn’t go to school with them,” the southern New Mexico scholar says. “When you went home in the afternoons, those are the kids you played with out in the street. We didn’t have a swimming pool. We’d go swimming in the irrigation ditches.
Those are the kids you paled around with, that you’d go to the movies with…”

Although Mitch Boyer initially attended a segregated school, he says he did not personally experience other strands of racism in Dona Ana County when he was young. The place where Boyer got an in-the-face taste of prejudice was in 1966 Farmington. Bordering the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico, Farmington has also experienced recurring racial tensions between Anglos and Native Americans over the years, including murders and other violent attacks on Native Americans.

As a member the Gadsden High School Student Council, Boyer took a trip with fellow council members to the rough-and-tumble border town. The group entered a restaurant and sat down, Boyer recalls, but then the waitress glanced at the young man and refused to serve him because he was Black. Yet at that very moment, Boyer discovered the meaning of solidarity. “Everybody got up and left,” he says.

By the 1960s, Vado had declined as an African-American town. Like Blackdom before it, water troubles afflicted the small farming enterprises and the population scattered to different parts of the country, as the lure of college and the big city inspired a new generation to forge a different life off the farm, Boyer says.

Blacks, meanwhile, had settled in other parts of Dona Ana County, most notably in the county seat of Las Cruces and its East Mesa.

Emory Douglas Williams was among the early Black settlers. He was a tuberculosis victim who relocated to the dry climate of Las Cruces in 1896, eventually opening a barber shop. Other early African American residents of the City of Three Crosses included Amos T. Brooks, who owned a grocery store and ice cream parlor, and W.T. Bill Anthony, the town’s blacksmith and owner of Valley Welding Service.

Fielder traces his own family roots in Las Cruces to just after the turn of the last century, when maternal grandfather Daniel Hibler, who had been working in the small New Mexico town, briefly returned to Texas for his bride. The Hiblers built Phillips Chapel on Tornillo and Lucero streets in 1911, establishing a formal space for an institution which became the center of the small but growing African American community.

Fielder’s father, Henry Fielder, came to Las Cruces on Thanksgiving Day in 1923, arriving after an adventurous journey of sorts. Coming from Oklahoma, the Fielders packed all their belongings-including horses and cows-into the boxcar of a train headed for Las Cruces. Alabama-born, Henry Fielder worked for many years in a Chevrolet dealership and passed away in 1989.

In 1934, the Booker T. Washington School serving Black students opened on Solano Street. According to research by Clarence Fielder and Terry Moody, Dona Ana County’s Black population grew from 78 in 1920 to 649 in 1930, the decade in which Vado began flourishing.

For several decades, Las Cruces’ African-American population held pretty steady, reaching 700 people in 1970. The 2010 US Census found that 1.7 percent of the county-wide population of 209,233, or 3,656 people, was of African-American descent.

African Americans were pioneers in the settlement of Las Cruces’ now-trendy East Mesa. Fielder has documented how members the Pettes and eight other families staked out homesteads from 1931 to 1940 in the then-isolated desert under the 1862 and 1916 Homestead laws.

New residents like the Pettes tapped water sources, ranched the range and farmed the wind-swept land. “Only Blacks lived out there,” Fielder says. “It’s only in recent years that Anglos and Hispanics have moved out there.”

On the East Mesa, the new settlers used kerosene lamps for light, gathered mesquite wood for fuel and cooked on wood stoves. In addition to the nine permanent families, a dozen or so others lived off-and-on in the community, arriving to work in the cotton harvest before moving on to the next picking in Arizona.

“At first, it was nothing but sand dunes, and they said nothing could out there,” Fielder adds of Las Cruces’ East Mesa. “But the Pettes have drilled wells and have one of the best water systems on the East Mesa.”

A similar pattern of African-American community development occurred to the north in Albuquerque, where widespread and even codified housing discrimination
influenced Black settlement on that city’s also once-isolated east mesa.

According to an official account of history of the Duke City, Virginia Ballou began the East End Addition in the 1950s on mesa land where arroyos, grassland and tumbleweeds predominated. Albuquerque’s East End Addition was described as a subdivision of two dozen homes without water, gas and electricity services.

Decades before similar communities got public attention in the US-Mexico border region, African-American communities lacking in basic infrastructure existed on the edges of both Las Cruces and Albuquerque.

“We call them colonias now,” Fielder says, “but we just called them settlements.”

The 20th century settlement of Vado and Las Cruces wasn’t the first time people of African-American descent had set foot in this part of the big Chihuahuan Desert.

For instance, Black US Army troops known as buffalo soldiers participated in the construction of Fort Selden in the 1860s and then in its dismantlement in 1891.Today, Fort Selden is a state monument near the village of Radium Springs, just north of modern-day Las Cruces.

The buffalo soldiers participated in the military campaign against Apache resistance leader Victorio, losing at least 12 men in the process, according to author William Wroth.
“Eight Black soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery during the campaign,” Wroth writes.

According to historian Fielder, the buffalo soldiers never established roots in Dona Ana County.

Different forces and motivations-Jim Crow, the railroad, the availability of land and personal relationships- encouraged Black migration to Dona Ana County, he says, with many of the newcomers hailing from Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. Later, the presence of White Sands Missile Range and the growth of NMSU contributed significantly to the development of the local African American community.

Although Blacks gained entrance to NMSU after 1940, many years would pass before their history was academically recognized at the school.

A recent article by Christopher Schurtz in the local publication My Las Cruces (April 26-May 2, 2011) reviewed the history of student activism at NMSU from 1968 to 1973. The article noted the formation of organizations such as Los Chicanos and the Black Students Organization (BSO) which demanded ethnic studies programs. According to Schurtz, BSO member Craig Webb was assaulted and his face bloodied while participating in a protest against compulsory ROTC protest in 1969.

Like many other institutions of higher learning elsewhere in the country, NMSU finally relented to the students’ calls for ethnic studies. A decorated Korean War vet and a teacher in the Las Cruces public schools system, Clarence Fielder got the job of teaching the university’s first class on US Black history back in 1970.

Until his retirement last year, Fielder instructed the class for 40 years, exposing hundreds and hundreds of students (including many public school teachers) to the stories of African-Americans over the decades.

In the run-up to New Mexico’s Centennial of Statehood anniversary in 2012, The New Mexico scholar still detects a certain neglect of New Mexico Black history, a situation he is attempting to remedy through exhibitions, public presentations and the restoration of
Las Cruces’ Phillips Chapel with the assistance of Dona Ana Community Branch College.

Fielder is the co-curator of an exhibit on African-Americans in the state that has been on display at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe for the past four months and closes on October 9 of this year, according to Joe Diaz, a curator at the museum.

“That’s a part of New Mexico history,” Fielder says, contending that some try to deny the state’s Black heritage. So far, he says, the Santa Fe exhibit is “going very well” and reporting good turnouts. “People are just amazed that Blacks have some history in this state.”

As part of the exhibition, a symposium on Black entrepreneurship in New Mexico is scheduled at the museum for Sunday, September 25,. Diaz says museum staff are
“really pleased” with the public’s response to the exhibit, and are considering incorporating the themes addressed into future, permanent displays at the state’s history museum.

The exhibit is next scheduled to run in Las Cruces’ Farm and Ranch Museum sometime in 2012.

For Mitch Boyer too, education has been key to the African American experience in
New Mexico. Once encountering racist attitudes in the Gadsden School District of southern New Mexico, Boyer went on to serve as the district’s board president from 1988 to 1994. A few years ago, a new elementary school was constructed across the street from the old Dunbar Elementary School (now a Head Start office) of Mitch Boyer’s childhood. Once again, Vado’s elementary school hosts a new generation of migrants, this time Spanish-speakers from across the border. “We’re really proud of its record,” Boyer says of the new school. “It’s a fine school.”

-Kent Paterson

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