It’s self-evident: the New Mexico black population is small. Black New Mexicans—whether African, Caribbean, or black American—comprise less than 3 percent of the people living in the state. That’s including a long-standing black community of 19,000 or so in Albuquerque. Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, census figures show that the black population in the city of about 67,947 increased in the last decade from 450 to 700.
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?
New Mexico is the home of the only state-funded Office of African American Affairs in the nation; the University of New Mexico has an Africana studies program. Santa Fe supports an annual Fela Festival (a celebration of African culture) and the state NAACP branch sponsors a popular Juneteenth commemoration; Santa Fe's high altitude has made it a popular training spot for African runners; race-conscious writers such as Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) have filled seats at the Lensic. And yet, are black residents staying away?
Isabel Wilkerson's hugely successful The Warmth of Other Suns, published in 2010, tells the representative story of three black Americans at the turn of the 20th century who leave the South; their exoduses show how black culture spread throughout the US. 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 1800s, but a grandiose influx of millions of blacks into Washington, D.C. and Chicago only began occurring after World War I (known as the time of the Great Migration) and was followed later by a western migration toward Los Angeles and Oakland in the 1940s.
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." He "crossed into New Mexico" but "had no reason to stop there" except to sleep.
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. "It is obvious to this author that the number of publications on the African American community in New Mexico unfortunately lags behind every other state in the West." He laments that "so little can be found about African Americans in New Mexico it almost seems a conspiracy."
Or is it less a conspiracy than another self-fulfilling prophesy? That every time New Mexico is spoken of as "tri-cultural," a bias is reinforced and a potential black narrative is lost in 400-plus years of a Native American/Hispanic/Anglo shuffle? 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.
I have lived in Santa Fe five years, and I moved here from the heart of the American South. 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 74-year-old Charles Maxwell, a Santa Fean since 1954.
"One year in the 70s I served on some Fiesta committee. 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?' They said something like there wasn't enough of us to put us up on the board. I didn't make a fuss about it," he says with a grimace.
Then, there's James Smart, a five-year resident of rural Española, who describes an unrepentantly racist incident in which a small child used the n-word. James says "This little kid points his finger at me and goes 'Look, look, nigger man!'"
Like many black Americans, I have had this kind of incident happen to me too many times to say I was shocked. Instead, I asked James if it was possible the child had never seen a black American before?
"We have always been here," James replied.
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 1500. He was resold to a sea captain in 1522 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 300 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 1538 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 1600s, 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. Deidra S. 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 1812. Pedro Bautista Pino declared that in New Mexico "Spaniards and pure blood Indians make up the total population of 40,000 inhabitants." The statement ignored the thousands of black slaves brought to Mexico and New Mexico and their mixed-race descendants. Heath identifies specific mullato families living contemporaneously in New Mexico, concluding it was unlikely Pino "genuinely believed no Negro castes lived within province."
Why the need to falsify? It may have been that by 1812 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.
In 1859, New Mexico, now a US territory, was pressured by Texas into passing a slave code. Essayist Mark Stegmaier points out the irony that by 1859 "New Mexico had so few slaves the territory's census did not differentiate between slaves and free black populations." But the racial caste system which characterized colonial New Mexico was by its very nature at odds with the American rule-of-thumb that declared anyone a Negro who possessed 'one drop' of Negro blood. The standard American racial mores failed to quite make sense here. Who, asks Stegmaier, in the racial flux of New Mexico counted as black? The slave code was repealed in 1861.
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 1866 and 1900, over 3,000 "Buffalo soldiers" served at New Mexico forts. In 1876, 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 1908, although he labored for years to interest professionals in his discovery. The bones were an extraordinary archeological find, dating over 10,000 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 1900 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. Blackdom was initially the dream of Henry Boyer, a black soldier who in 1846 traveled through the Pecos Valley at a time when free blacks in New Mexico were required to "post a sum of $200 to ensure good behavior." New Mexico nevertheless struck Boyer as "a beautiful place where a man could live free from slavery, segregation, discrimination, and Jim Crow laws." Henry Boyer instilled in his son Francis the idea that a New Mexico black Elysium was possible.
Possibly the most impressive chapter in African American History in New Mexico uses information gathered from surviving Boyer relatives to reconstruct a thorough account of the Blackdom township, officially incorporated in 1911. Francis Boyer was deeply influenced by the "black Exodusters movement" of the late 1800s. 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. "The first few years went well due to plentiful rain [and the community] was able to support a small store, two churches, a school, a post office, and a one sheet newspaper," write Jeff A Berg and MA Walton, but Blackdom was killed by drought. 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 1925. 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. "The racial pecking order in Tucumcari," recalls a black resident in the 1940s, "included whites at the top, the Spanish people next (because they were able to go to school with whites) and then, at the bottom, were the "colored" people."
Blacks in Albuquerque were allowed to attend neighborhood public schools, but were segregated within the school by being forced to sit in the rear of classrooms. Albuquerque passed a local anti-discrimination ordinance in 1952, 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 1952 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. Board of Education in 1954, or the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 did the segregated realities of New Mexico begin to change.
In an essay originally published at the height of the Black Power movement in 1969, 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 1995 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 1999 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.
Charles Maxwell, 74, is a familiar face given the decades that he has promoted the Charles "Cocoa" Maxwell Golf Tournament in honor of a deceased son. Retired from the New Mexico Highway Department, Maxwell has the natural manner of a father figure. He routinely emphasizes the importance of doing charitable works.
"My father was a sharecropper in Roswell. 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.
"We were so glad when dad decided to leave Roswell. 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. My first job was washing dishes.
I'd say there were maybe 20, or 24 blacks in Santa Fe. But more guys than women. That created some problems 'cause of course black guys were going out with white and Hispanic girls. In Roswell, blacks only went out with blacks. I'd say 80 percent of the blacks in Santa Fe are in mixed marriages. I went out with Spanish girls and Native Americans. I could have married a white, or a Native American, but I felt like…with so few blacks around I just felt like I wanted to marry a black woman."
Maxwell, now happily married for 52 years, prefers to laugh off incidents of prejudice—customers who too hastily accused him of wrongdoing, the not uncommon occurrence of children using the n-word. Ironically, Maxwell notes that only four years ago as he helped local Girl Scouts with cookie sales, he was accosted by two police officers after a resident had complained "a strange black man" wandered the streets.
"I've had a wonderful experience here… but that hurt me more than anything else in all my time here," he says.
George Geder, 62, a genealogist and the president of the Santa Fe NAACP, moved here from Oakland seven years ago:
"When I first got here I tried to find where the black folks were with my wife Cynthia, so we went to the NAACP meeting. We saw first off it was a decidedly multi-cultural group with fewer blacks than usual. The number of black faces is increasing, but just like someone told me when I first got here, if you're looking for the 'hood, you're not going to find it."
Geder says he and his wife "try to acknowledge black folk when we see them." The reaction?
"It varies. We get people who are delighted that we made the overture; other times we get the cold shoulder. And I understand that…some people are coming from large communities like Detroit, or Baltimore, where there is lots of chaos and confusion within the black community. When they come to Santa Fe they...tend to feel they don't want to get involved.
I feel we gotta' have our culture, and shouldn't lose it—hold on no matter where you go. It's always good to have fellowship. As president of the NAACP chapter I just want people to know that if you want a get together with soul food, if you want to celebrate Kwanzaa, it's possible. I believe the last three governors have made statements that this is a multi-cultural state, not a tri-cultural state."
Tone Forrest, an actor and musician, says he routinely approaches other blacks and says "I'm Tone. They're too few of us in Santa Fe for all of us not to know each other."
"I've been black all my life, but here we are demographically a part of the Anglo community. It's different in Albuquerque. There's a black community in Santa Fe, yes, but not an appreciable demographic. Nobody is hunting the black vote in Santa Fe. The irony of that is palpable, but it's worked fine for me. Mostly it's been advantageous because I stand out. Being black gets me noticed…but it's my skills which have gotten me work. "
Danielle Louise Reddick, a Harlem-born actress, has been living here since 1999. She speaks of Santa Fe in terms of freedom from black stereotypes. "I've had a couple of black boyfriends who couldn't deal with me because I was too independent, and my world was a little too white–being in the theater and everything. And I had a white boyfriend who had to hide me when his dad was around. I've seen both sides of the coin. I've felt really ostracized by both the black and the white community."
Reddick moved to Santa Fe with her future husband, then she began to make new associations.
"Soon I met a girlfriend. It's like when you have a black attack. You see another black person and you go 'Heeeey, you live here? What do you do here! Let's hang out!' We were part of a song circle. But she had a son, and [as her son grew older] she didn't want to raise her child here. I had another friend with daughters, and at school the other kids were teasing them calling them slaves! I've met a couple of white mothers with adopted black daughters, and they tell me 'I don't know what to do with her hair!'
"I think because of my life in theater… I think it's given me a mindset where I don't feel intimidated not being in a community of black people," she says. "I experience that from other black people. 'Oh my God. How can you live here? There are no black people here'."
Owner of Wellness by Design, Rick Bastine, will never forget the day he was driving in Santa Fe, and a cop passed by without slowing and staring him down. "In Oakland, and in California in general," he says, "cops stare you down. It's commonplace—racial profiling."
"When I first came here I thought 'what the hell did I do? …Where are the black people?' It also feels like even though black people live here it isn't a cohesive community; when other cultures move to an area they come together; for example the Africans in Santa Fe bond. I have a sense we don't do that—maybe not here or in a lot of other places. I would like to change that."
Bastine does believe that more blacks could "warm up" to Santa Fe. "I know that for some it didn't nourish them, but for me it tenderized me," says Bastine, who discovered his vocations as a hypnotherapist and neuro-linguistic practitioner in Santa Fe. He was born in Jim Crow Louisiana and remembers segregated drinking fountains, but finds an odd sense of being "invisible"—not an object of racial scrutiny—proved rejuvenating here.
"I used to do things I was good at. Not the things I loved. I decided to stop caring about what someone else would think. And I embraced myself," he says.
Gregory Waits, a performance artist and intern architect says "here, much more than Albuquerque, blacks are perceived as a novelty. An exotic other. That can be appealing. But it's not an ideal that applies everywhere. I could be in a ghetto in San Francisco, and if was walking there I would be perceived as a criminal, or a drug dealer. I love Santa Fe. But I do think it has a certain fantasy element about it in relationship to the United States in general."
Waits and others share a dream of publically honoring the continuity of a black presence in New Mexico.
Since the early 21st century, there has been a movement spearheaded by the Blackdom Incorporated (a foundation in Roswell) to build a permanent, large memorial to Francis Boyers' vision behind Blackdom and Vado. Waits, who serves as the project designer, envisions a garden near the original town site. Presently, there is a small historical marker at a rest stop on Highway 285 between Roswell and Artesia, but it's so inconspicuous that it underscores the scanty number of New Mexico's black population rather than highlighting its persistence.
Waits says the memorial garden will look behind and ahead. "I incorporated Francis Boyer's migration with the Middle Passage, the Exodusters and the Great Migration because we tend to see things in parts, but the essence of the story is a search for self-identity, and the memorial doesn't end with Francis Boyer and how his town was killed by a drought. I saw from Boyer's city plan that he was still so dependent on what he had known before. They were so close to slavery, they didn't have an identity yet. You couldn't. Not coming from such an oppressive situation. They didn't achieve it there– but the narrative can go on."
Does the search continue in Santa Fe? Is that why the few of us who live here choose to do so? Is it a point on a map of identity?
“I’d say so. In a strange kind of a way, coming here is a weird kind of erasure of any stereotypical past,” Waits says. " The past that’s here is unique. Atypical. It’s almost like a clean slate."
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a Santa Fe based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Progressive, Boston Review, The Common Review and The Washington Post.