3 Questions

3 Questions with Historian Timothy E. Nelson

On Blackdom Township, pop culture and spreading the word when it comes to the lesser-known New Mexico history

Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Blackdom, New Mexico—an all-Black township founded by 13 men near Roswell in 1903—it’s not often taught in history classes, if at all. Still, with PhD historian and educator Timothy E. Nelson on the case through lectures, a forthcoming book and other media, the true stories of real-life figures such as early settlers Isaac W. Jones and Frank Boyer, as well as homesteader Mittie “Mattie” Moore Wilson, might soon become more well-known for their contributions to the township’s short but impactful existence. This week, Nelson joins forces with producer and co-researcher Marissa R. Roybal to present a reading of his one-act play Finding Blackdom—Mittie of South Virginia Street at Teatro Paraguas (7 pm Friday, June 23 and Saturday, June 24; 2 pm Sunday, June 25. $10. 3205 Calle Marie, (505) 424-1601). In the show, Nelson focuses on Wilson’s right-hand confidant Dixie, as well as a traveler named Maceo who appears in the township. Nelson will offer intermittent talkback moments throughout the reading—part of his ongoing mission of advocacy through artistry. We caught up with Nelson by phone this week to learn a little more ahead of the performances. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (Alex De Vore)

Why do you think the history—or even the existence—of Blackdom is not more well-known?

It’s a complicated issue for New Mexico and New Mexicans, because of the tri-cultural narrative, which is the Indigenous, Hispanic and white framework of the state. And, this is firmly a new history given the state is only 100 years old. That narrative excludes Black folks. You’re talking about the takeover by the Ku Klux Klan; they took over the legal system. If they’re in charge of the legal system, that affects the cultural system and Black folks are going to be left out. But people kept their own histories that go beyond culture and [there are] deeper histories that are just now being discovered a hundred years later.

It’s not uncommon in New Mexico that Blackdom is left out. When I was introduced…my dissertation chair [at the University of Texas El Paso] Jeffrey Shepherd showed me and said, ‘Why don’t you look at Blackdom?’ I was in graduate school, and that’s when I found the Blackdom Oil Company; within 20 years [of founding Blackdom] they struck oil in the Permian Basin. So Black people strike oil, they name their company Blackdom Oil Company—that’s pretty significant for a state that’s only 100 years old. But you know, most people didn’t hear about Juneteenth until it was a national holiday.

You’re working on a book about Blackdom, but the upcoming event at Teatro Paraguas is a one-act play. Why is it important to tell this history across multiple media?

To state who you are, be who you are in a public square? In places like Florida, it’s a revolutionary act. I think they just bolstered the sodomy laws in Texas. It’s getting pretty weird right now, so for us to be putting out real history in this climate, we’re going to have to actually reach the people. And you’re not going to reach the people with a dissertation. I’m going to be honest, I’m not going to read my dissertation, it’s written for an academic audience. I’ve got to remix. That’s where Marissa came in. After 10 years in a doctoral program, I had no space to do things like that, and Marissa was able to conjure that up. We started doing public facilitations at [the Center for Contemporary Arts]. We hit hard with the academics in the academic world, and translate and transmit in the popular culture world. We have to be very conscious of that divide.

Is there anything about Blackdom you’ve learned that surprises you or that you’re particularly excited to relate to others?

OK, so, I discovered the Blackdom Oil Company when no one else knew about it. But what was also interesting to me was who was involved in the Blackdom Oil Company, and that’s where this play begins—Mittie Moore was a Black woman, a madam, a bootlegger, a gunslinger, and this is on the record, not something I’m just saying or making up. After discovering her, I looked at Blackdom, and it turns out she was in Blackdom, too. She was a homesteader and oil baron. We’re talking the Roaring 20s—how good of a life does a bootlegger and homesteader have? And she’s running her bawdy business? She was rich as fuck, and rich from both sides of the coin.

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