Black New Mexicans—whether African, Caribbean, or black American—comprise less than 3 percent of the people living in the state. Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, census figures show that the black population in the city of about 67, increased in the last decade from to But African-Americans who live in the City Different say that number even seems high when they scan the faces here.
Why such historically low numbers in the Land of Enchantment, and only hundreds in the capital city? And yet, are black residents staying away? Before emancipation, blacks free or slave overwhelmingly resided in Southern pockets. Not insignificantly, black homesteaders and Buffalo soldiers ventured westward by the thousands in the late s, but a grandiose influx of millions of blacks into Washington, D.
Wilkerson encapsulates the westward migration in the story of Robert Pershing Foster. Foster leaves segregated Louisiana and heads west nonstop until he reaches El Paso, "the unspoken border between the Jim Crow South and the free Southwest.
Although she only gives New Mexico a brief, passing mention, Wilkerson's book still illuminates the ways in which migrations have always been a self-fulfilling prophesy—blacks traveled "where they knew others" recreating familiar environs while New Mexico culture seemed foreign ; and they travelled where work was plentiful the mining jobs available in New Mexico could not compete with the labor force burgeoning in California.
They were already making a leap of faith. New Mexico seemed the leap into the fantastic. While New Mexico has been consistently neglected in books purportedly devoted to illuminating the black West, earlier this year, the University of New Mexico Press finally published the compilation of essays African American History in New Mexico. Editor Bruce Glasrud provides an introduction which often sounds an apologetic note. Then again, isn't America fascinated by frontier stories; and isn't it possible that in the tumult of the Great Migration blacks who chose New Mexico made the most radical break with the past of them all?
It's worth considering how an ongoing black presence—from inter-racial sexual relations in the Spanish colonial times to the ways that desegregation battles initiated in the South still impacted New Mexico identity and law—may have changed New Mexico.
The South is a region burdened by history, and in my opinion still is a region torn by racial strife, angst and animosity. Coming from this background, I was fascinated by how blacks maneuvered the terrain of a western state with its own history of racial strife which decentralizes the traditional American black-white racial dynamic. I had no choice but to ask myself how the impact of a black presence culminated in 21st century New Mexico. It also seemed to me there was and according to Santa Feans interviewed for this article there is something past and present distinctive about belonging to the black oasis in Santa Fe.
Still, there are stories about race prejudice experienced by blacks in a state with so few. Consider what it's been like for year-old Charles Maxwell, a Santa Fean since They put up the names on some board of all the groups in New Mexico. They had the Spanish, the Indians and Anglos. I raised my hand and said, 'Well hold on, what about us? I didn't make a fuss about it," he says with a grimace. Instead, I asked James if it was possible the child had never seen a black American before?
The state's population of blacks can be traced far back in history, a fact emphasized by African American History in New Mexico but belied by today's low numbers. Consider the obscure yet highly romantic figure of Esteban Dorantes.
Esteban was a black slave, probably born in sub-Saharan Africa circa He was resold to a sea captain in and became a crew member on one of the earliest Spanish expeditions into Northern America, traversing places we now call Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. The expedition proved catastrophic for all but four of its crew members.
The four survivors, a number that included Esteban, fortuitously reached safety in Mexico City, which was the seat of Spanish colonial power in the New World. Esteban achieved a renown which led to him receiving a position of authority on a subsequent expedition commanded by Marcos de Niza.
With that group, Esteban led a forward guide party that is generally believed to have been the first to reach Arizona, New Mexico and the Pueblo lands. The word "discoverer" is freighted with bias, however, it's worth noting that the ostensible first "discoverer" of New Mexico was a black man.
This seems almost too ironic to be true, though historians by and large agree it is so. The tale has other symbolic resonances. Marcos de Niza later wrote in a report to the crown that Esteban had been murdered by Zuni Indians. The Zunis have passed down an oral account related to Esteban as the inspiration behind a kachina—a small doll used in Zuni ceremonies.
According to their account, Esteban was killed due to a ceremonial misunderstanding. Others stories say he was killed because he arrogantly demanded women and turquoise. Regardless, he's still depicted as Chaiwaina—a warrior bejeweled, his flesh midnight black, his hair wooly, simultaneously depicting the dread and awe of a first encounter. Throughout the s, willing and coerced liaisons between the Spanish and black slaves in New Mexico, and marriages between free blacks and American Indians produced a sub-population of mixed-race citizens.
MacDonald points out that although Black-Indian relations in New Mexico had "a less than auspicious beginning" with Esteban, the small, overwhelmingly male population of blacks in the colony bonded with and consistently married Indian women. McDonald furthermore argues that the Pueblo Revolt, which temporarily drove the Spanish out of New Mexico, is best understood as a multi-ethnic revolt against the Spanish conquerors, waged collectively by American Indians and the biracial castes.
Essayist Jim Heath devotes a whole chapter to a directly contrary statement issued over a century later in Pedro Bautista Pino declared that in New Mexico "Spaniards and pure blood Indians make up the total population of 40, inhabitants.
Heath identifies specific mullato families living contemporaneously in New Mexico, concluding it was unlikely Pino "genuinely believed no Negro castes lived within province. It may have been that by the Spanish caste system—and its recognition of fluidity in race politics and social status—was becoming Americanized. The myth of black inferiority was enmeshed in the United States culture, and the black presence had become a mark of shame. Essayist Mark Stegmaier points out the irony that by "New Mexico had so few slaves the territory's census did not differentiate between slaves and free black populations.
The standard American racial mores failed to quite make sense here. The slave code was repealed in Although Southern anti-black race prejudice strongly affected New Mexico after the Civil War, transient black cowboys, and, in particular, black infantrymen, sometimes permanently remained.
Between and , over 3, "Buffalo soldiers" served at New Mexico forts. In , Buffalo soldier musicians the black regiments were renowned for their marching bands performed in the Santa Fe Fourth of July celebration. Originally a slave born in Texas, George McJunkin achieved renown for having the acumen to recognize the importance of bison bones and a flint spear tip that he discovered in New Mexico in , although he labored for years to interest professionals in his discovery.
The bones were an extraordinary archeological find, dating over 10, years old and providing clues about early man. A black bronco buster Addison Jones also became a local legend.
Blacks at the turn of the century may have been less a sustained community than an assortment of mavericks and oddities, but from onward there were visible outlines of the future. The road towards black hopes and aspirations in New Mexico leads to Blackdom, an all-black township near present day Dexter that briefly flourished in the early 20th century.
Francis Boyer was deeply influenced by the "black Exodusters movement" of the late s. While the later Great Migration was an unplanned, spontaneous exodus and relocation of millions driven by desperation and necessity, the Exodusters movement—which never inspired comparable numbers—was schematic. Thousands of freed slaves journeyed to the great 'elsewhere' usually Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma with loosely knit plans to establish farming communities.
The heart of the movement was romantic, utopian, and, critics claimed, impractical. Exoduster ideals were expressed in a town map that Francis Boyer drew up for the town. Francis Boyer and his wife Ella founded another black settlement in Vado, NM, but the black residents scattered by the late 40s.
Vado today is mostly Hispanic. Boyer's living relatives harbor memories of feelings of pride and self-reliance fostered in Vado. It would be unwise to embrace a too Pollyannaish view of race relations in early 20th century, or civil rights era New Mexico. Francis Boyer's family was threatened by the area Ku Klux Klan chapter in The Blackdom and Vado enclaves were nothing if not atypical. The typical New Mexico city and town was segregated by law or by an accepted social contract.
Albuquerque passed a local anti-discrimination ordinance in , but it is often implied in African Americans in New Mexico that seeming early successes were in fact reflections of a general indifference—social bandages to a New Mexico population too small to warrant passionate engagement. The Albuquerque civil rights ordinance—like a later state public accommodations law passed in the early 60s—had too little teeth. Only after federal laws and sanctions such as Brown vs.
In an essay originally published at the height of the Black Power movement in , Roger W Banks squarely confronts the difficulties of forging a black social, cultural or political identity in a state in which "the small size and scatted nature of the black population" made them a third-wheel minority with little cache or clout.
By Banks' account, middle-class blacks in Albuquerque have traditionally been "transient professionals" with no strong commitments to the region, while the native black poor have been so accustomed to lacking representation that they have never developed a strong sense of collective self-identity. Many may disagree with Bank's dire prognosis, but few will disagree that more work needs to be done to flesh out the state's civil rights era legacy. The narrative portrayed in African American History in New Mexico lacks the drama of Southern struggles, yet it is haunted by a certain disappointment.
New Mexico still today has elected no African American state senators, much less a US congressman or senator. The dramatic pinnacle comes with the election of Rep.
Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Bernalillo, who is still the most visible face of black political achievement in the state. It was her successful push in that established the Office of African American Affairs, an office with a mission to redress African American poverty and support black cultural identity in New Mexico that will likely outlast any individual political term. In Blackdom, and on many occasions throughout New Mexico history, blacks have expressed deep feelings of appreciation for the ways in which the state's unique racial flux facilitated personal liberation.
This is the pole which the state's black history revolves around: A feeling sometimes of rootlessness and a contrary sense of liberation, remaking stereotypes by leaping out of traditional boundaries, and shunting the baggage of the past.
He routinely emphasizes the importance of doing charitable works. When I was 14, the boss man made us give up our house on the land to a white family. My dad got tired of being a sharecropper. He was going to go find a job in California. But he missed his turn, stopped at a gas station, and asked for directions," he says. It was so prejudiced down there. The black kids played with the black kids, and whites with whites. The teachers were favored toward the white kids more than the black and Hispanic kids.
They used to put all the kids to work on the farms in Roswell. But in Santa Fe my dad made sure my brothers and sisters got a good education. I was about 17 and I got a job to help out.