This is the last of three diaries designed to bring you a taste of the contributions African Americans have made to New Mexico history and culture. Nothing in any of these diaries is intended to be all-inclusive; it's merely a sepia-toned snapshot of three distinct points in the state's historical timeline that go too often unremarked and unremembered. I apologize for the dearth of links and images, but I'm having extreme computer difficulties right now.
New Mexico makes much of its triracial inclusion and harmony (which, truth be told, is not so much as an inch deep, but that's another diary). What isn't obvious to folks from elsewhere is that the three races to which it refers are, as they are known in the polite version of local parlance, "Anglos," "Hispanics," and "Indians." In most of the state, African Americans aren't even on the public radar screen (nor are Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, people of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, or those of Caribbean ancestry - but, again, that's another diary).
According to the 2010 census, African Americans constitute 12.6% of the national population. In New Mexico, that figure drops to a scant 2.1%. [Despite the fact that the U.S. stole this land from Mexico, which in turn had stolen it from the indigenous populations, 68.4% of New Mexico's total population comprises "Anglos," whether "Hispanic" or "non-Hispanic."]
African American history and culture are a bit of a unicorn in this state: occasionally reported, but mostly elusive, and largely invisible to all but those who actually go looking for it. And yet, Black Americans have a long and storied history in New Mexico, with a vibrant presence predating statehood by half a century. It's long past time for that presence to assume its rightful place in the state's past and present.
Come with me. I'm going to take you on a little tour of three New Mexico towns that play a role in African American history.
Today, we're heading east again, and a bit southward, to Dexter in southeastern Chaves County.
No, we're not going to see the cable serial killer.
It's a tiny little town some 17 miles southeast of Roswell. Yes, that Roswell. No, there are no aliens there - unless you count the alien-head street lamps in front of the local convention center and Freddie, the life-sized stuffed alien who sits in his wheelchair outside the UFO Museum store. Sorry to disappoint you.
Dexter today depends upon its proximity to and connections with Roswell, so let's tour its history first.
Roswell, which is the Chaves County seat, is a stereotypical crossroads town, laid out around the intersection of Main and Second Streets. The population is mostly white and Hispanic, and while there's quite a bit of integration, there remain, very clearly, distinct "sides" of town, with all the psychological segregation that that implies. The north end, particularly, is seen as where the money is, and today, it's where virtually all new development occurs. While the county as a whole reports more than 65,000 residents, Roswell has never been able to clear the "50,000 minimum" population hurdle for classification as a metropolitan area. Currently, the county's population is something over 48,000, more than 70% of whom identify as white, but more than half of whom claim Hispanic ancestry. The Census Bureau reports that only 2% of county residents are Black.
Roswell is named for the father of one of its early "settlers" - not one of its first, as received lore would have you believe. Even the term "settlers" belongs in quotation marks, since these lands had been long inhabited by numerous Indian nations before the first European ever had the heretical notions that world might not be flat and there might be something out there beyond the edge of the sea. Apache, Comanche, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Ute - all made use of the lands now known as the capital of Little Texas.
Of course, what's little known (and even less often taught in history classes) is that the settlement that would eventually become known as Roswell was not founded initially by white "pioneers," but by a small group of Hispanics looking for a new start for their families. [And if I can ever get my books out of storage and find the history, now out of print, someday I'll do a diary about their story.] But while the Chisums and Whites and Leas and Poes and Smiths and Hinkles are credited with founding "Roswell," named for Roswell Smith, the father of settler Van C. Smith, the area's first postmaster, the first non-Indian inhabitants arrived half a generation earlier, and bore names like Martinez. They called it Missouri Plaza, but were forced to abandon the settlement after only a few years because of the dearth of water.
The next wave of settlers that arrived were mostly attached in one way or another to the U.S. military, or were merchants and businessmen who provided the military with needed goods and services. One of the latter, Nathan Jaffa (who has a street on the extreme south end of town named for him) dug an artesian well on his land and discovered that there was indeed a deep-ground supply of fresh water available. [Artesian wells became so common in the area that there's even a town named for them: Artesia, about 35 miles south, sits at the halfway point between Roswell and Carlsbad.] After that, white settlement of the area expanded rapidly.
Southeast of town are scattered a number of tiny villages, anchored today by white-owned farming/ranching outfits, and more recently, by corporate dairy operations. A lot of the land looks surprising lush and green for being part of the Llano, but of course, it all occurs by way of massive irrigation operations. Left to the climate and its own devices, it would soon revert to the dry and windblown desert scrub of the surrounding countryside.
The two largest of these villages are Dexter and Hagerman. Of course, the term "largest" is very much relative: Dexter's village limits encompass less than one square mile. At the time of the 2000 census, it boasted a grand total of 1,235 residents, divided among 390 households. Of those residents, 60% were white; the African American population was a minuscule 0.24%. In the intervening twelve years, the Black population is unlikely to have grown significantly, if at all.
However, there once was a time when what is now Dexter had a substantial, and thriving, African American population. They called it "Blackdom."
Despite the fact that it is no more, Blackdom is in many ways my favorite of all the stories of African American history in New Mexico.
To understand fully how it came to be, we have to go back a couple of generations prior to its founding: to 1846, and Stephen Kearny's invasion of New Mexico. [Yes, I know what the history books call it. To area Indians, it was still an invasion.]
Dispatched from Ft. Leavenworth for the New Mexico Territory in 1846 to fight the Mexican-American War, Kearny led a force of some 2,500. One of those detailed to that force as a wagoneer was a Georgia freedman by the name of Henry Boyer. Upon reaching New Mexico, Mr. Boyer fell in love with the vast desert expanses of sky and land, so vastly different from what he'd known in the American South. Upon his return home, he told his wife and children tales of his adventures in New Mexico, emphasizing the stark beauty of the land.
One of Mr. Boyer's children, Francis Marion (Frank) Boyer, was captivated by his father's stories. As the son of a freedman, he would be fortunate enough to attend Morehouse College and to become a teacher. But the Reconstruction-era South remained a brutal and dangerous place for Black men and their families, and he eventually grew dissatisfied with their existence in Georgia, joining groups of other Black men organizing and speaking out against the savageries of the Ku Klux Klan and other Southern atrocities. Finally, his father suggested that he head to new Mexico to seek a better - safer - life for himself and his family. In 1896, Frank Boyer and his friend and student, Daniel Keyes, decided to set out for New Mexico. [Accounts vary as to whether the two actually departed in 1896 or at some point over the next four years. Several accounts report that the two left Georgia in January, 1900.]
Being Black, Mr. Boyer and Mr. Keyes could not travel by stagecoach or rail, nor could they get secure passage on a wagon train. Undeterred, they set out on foot, and walked the entire distance from Pellum (possibly the modern "Pelham"), Georgia, to Roswell, New Mexico - a distance of some 1,200 miles.
Upon arrival, the two men worked multiple jobs while exercising their rights as freedmen under the Homestead Act, laying claim to acreage in the area of what is now Dexter. The following year, Mr. Boyer's wife and children joined them, and he was able to secure a loan from a bank to begin homesteading. He dug an artesian well, built a house, and began an active outreach campaign to other African American families in surrounding states, urging them to come to the beautiful desert land in the southeastern part of the Territory and help create the New Mexico Territory's first Black community.
And they came.
More than 300 people joined the Boyer and the Keyes families, traveling from the South, the Midwest, and other parts of the West, all to help create the incorporated town of Blackdom.
Oh, there were obstacles. Whites would not sell train or stagecoach tickets, nor permit them to board in the event that they managed to secure tickets in the first place. They would not sell wagons or horses to Black families, despite their ability to pay. And it wasn't simply the fact that they were Black: More, it was the idea of Black people - educated, hard-working Black people - being allowed to get together to form a living, thriving community of their own. That must have been all kinds of threatening to the white power structure of the day.
And still, they came. By ones and twos. By cart, on horseback, on foot like the town's founders. Mr. Boyer filed the town's articles of incorporation in 1903. By 1908, some 20 all-Black homesteads dotted the Blackdom countryside, and the town boasted its own post office, a school, a church, a blacksmith's forge, other businesses, and a thriving nightlife, as well.
Unfortunately, racism coupled with drought soon took their toll. Many residents could not afford to dig their own artesian wells, and were forced to haul it staggering distances. Ever generous, Mr. Boyer freely aided his fellow Blackdom settlers with both water and financial loans - and then one of the area's periodic droughts choked off most water supplies. His own well dried up, and the county passed a law barring them from drilling any new wells. Worms invaded, attacking and destroying their crops. The bank foreclosed on Mr. Boyer and other residents. Eventually, the harsh conditions forced them to abandon the town. Mr. Boyer and his family, with a few others, moved to Pacheco for a time, and then migrated to Vado, where they established a new Black community.
All that remains of the original Blackdom now is a concrete slab, surrounded on all sides by private [white-held] ranching land, and the old Blackdom Baptist Church building. However, thanks to the persistent efforts of the president of the Chaves County NAACP, the Rev. Landjur Abukusumo, there now is at least a memorial to Blackdom: A monument was approved by the State and installed near the Roswell Museum of Art, and a roadside marker was placed along a distant highway (because no land is available anymore in the original Blackdom for the marker's installation). Plans are in the works for a Blackdom Memorial Gardens. Every year, the local NAACP hosts a Juneteenth Celebration, and they always pay tribute to Blackdom and its founders, true pioneers in the best sense of the word. And Blackdom lives on in the hearts of spirits of the African American men and women who know what the ancestors accomplished here.
As always, we do not forget.