Because of the Harlem Renaissance, the post-World War I Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities is generally well-known. Blacks also resettled the West Coast to work in defense industries during World War II, the subject of Chester Himes’ harrowing novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go. In early histories of New Mexico, the focus has been upon the “Heroic Triad” of Anglos, Latinos and Native Americans who comprise this non-majority state, one which is looking more and more like America’s future. But for that reason, scant attention has been paid to other ethnic groups like African Americans and Asian Americans. And, as Arthur Miller wrote in “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid.
So it comes as a tall glass of lemonade, a welcome refreshment, to see the exhibit, “New Mexico’s African American Legacy: Visible, Vital and Valuable,” located in National Hispanic Cultural Center’s History and Literary Arts Building, 1701 4th Street SW. The exhibit highlights the contributions of African Americans to New Mexico and the iridescent threads blacks have woven into this state’s cultural quilt. Curated by Brenda Ballon Dabney and Rita Powdrell, and designed by Charlie Kenneson, the show includes books, photographs, mixed-media collage, sculpture, hats and other artifacts. The display panels cover subjects as diverse as original families, newcomers and descendants, religion, social organizations and more. Since the 1860s, blacks have been a significant presence in New Mexico.
The display panels tell a story of adversity, isolation, surmounting obstacles, creating communities, endurance and even triumph. I was struck by how few African Americans initially resettled in New Mexico as compared to the Anglo population, and could only imagine such a solitary existence. Some of the original families made their livelihood sharecropping, raising corn, cotton, alfalfa, cantaloupe and other vegetables. The early migration was impelled by the “Black Codes” enforced by a number of Southern states, causing opportunities to be scarce for Freedmen after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Through the 1920s, African Americans left the South to escape Jim Crow statutes and racial discrimination.
The glass cases at NHCC display teaching certificates awarded to African Americans who were unable to practice in local public schools, but were hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In the 1920s, nine state school districts were segregated, so an elementary school for black children was opened in Doña Ana County.
What were visually most compelling to me were the sepia-toned reproductions of portrait photography, for example, of the Hibler family, one of the first settler families. Their gaze is stoic, determined and direct. Among the more fascinating stories is that of the Greer family. Elder Greer lighted out for Tampico, Mexico and knew revolutionary Pancho Villa. His mother was known as a healer and midwife in the Albuquerque area.
In New Mexico, African Americans found job opportunities as domestics, cooks and tenant farmers. They opened businesses such as lodging, restaurants, barbershops and beauty parlors, garages and newspapers. Because of the scarcity of water, homesteaders learned to dry farm by plowing the soil deeply, and many were successful at raising corn, peas, beans, squash and melons.
Blackdom was an African American settlement fifteen miles south of Roswell founded in 1901. That all-black settlement ended when the artesian wells ran dry. I’m reminded of novelist Zora Neale Hurston’s birthplace of Eatonville, an all-black town in Florida, and how Nobel Prize recipient Toni Morrison has observed that the price of integration was the disappearance of many black-owned institutions.
The history of African Americans in New Mexico of course coincides with the heroic civil rights struggles nationally. In 1910 the Doña Ana branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded by black leaders and white liberals. While one of the NAACP’s greatest victories was Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, which declared segregated public facilities as inherently unequal, even after integration, blacks were prevented from using public facilities and some accommodations. Many African Americans remember not being allowed to use service station bathrooms or having hotel accommodations while on the road. The Dona Aña branch was instrumental in securing passage of the 1964 Accommodations Act, desegregating public facilities in New Mexico.
I should also mention that the exhibit includes paintings in acrylics and oil by Ricardo Chávez-Mendéz, the “master of Curvismo” (Curvism). Born in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, he has also been dubbed the “Dali of the Desert” after the Spanish Surrealist. Inspired by the election of Barack Obama, Chávez-Mendéz’s canvases, “African Spirits 1 and 2,” depict two black females ornamented in ceremonial garb, mainly animal pelts and adornments. They are encircled by swirling, patterned curvatures of Energies as Eternal Delight.
Before “African American Legacy” closes on Sept. 18, 2010, you have the chance to attend two symposiums scheduled from 1-5 p.m. in the Wells Fargo building of Hispanic Cultural Center:
Aug. 21: Barbers and Beauticians, part of the economic and social fabric of the African
Sept. 1: The impact of New Mexico’s African American athlete locally and nationally.