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Other Pioneers, p2

 

The Civil War itself brought a few slaves to New Mexico with their owners, mostly Confederate officers. But it does not seem that either side had any black soldiers here during those years.

 

After the Civil War, things really began to change. Black people of all occupations headed west — railroad workers, cowpunchers and miners. The latter gave Grant County the fourth-largest population of black people in New Mexico Territory by 1910, accounting for about 10% of the population.

Everyone should know or does know about the "Buffalo Soldiers" (a term now disputed by some historians), who served for many years in New Mexico, including at Fort Bayard.

Usually overlooked, however, is a woman Buffalo Soldier, Cathay Williams, who enlisted in the US Army in 1866. An army doctor "examined" Williams, announcing her fit for duty. One assumes he made sure only that all of her limbs were present during said exam, and soon Private Williams was heading west to New Mexico. She was in the infantry and walked over 500 miles to Fort Union and was later stationed at Forts Cummings and Bayard as well. It appears that Pvt. Williams never was involved in combat, mostly due to deteriorating health issues, which put her into army hospitals at least five times. Again and incredibly, she was never discovered to be female.

After Williams' discharge in 1868, she no longer posed as a man and worked at Fort Union as a cook for an army colonel in 1869-70. She left New Mexico after that and dealt with other health issues and the army Pension Bureau, which oddly also never questioned her gender. There is no record of what happened to her after the Pension Bureau rejected her claim in 1892, making her another African American pioneer lost to time.

 

Another African-American, George McJunkin, also had an unusual New Mexico story. The son of a blacksmith from Texas, he grew up on a ranch and learned the skills of a good cowboy. With only four years of formal education, McJunkin learned more by watching those around him read and write. A former buffalo hunter, his unheralded claim to fame came in 1908 in far northeastern New Mexico.

It was here that he and a co-worker, William Gordon, observed some bones poking out of the ground on the banks of the Dry Cimarron River near Folsom, NM. Intrigued, McJunkin could tell that they were not the remains of bison or cattle and tried to get some help with his discovery. It was not until 1925 that scientists, who finally paid attention, announced that the find included the ancient remains of bison that had been extinct for over 10,000 years. The site also later revealed spearheads among the bison bones that indicated humans had lived around here for a lot longer than originally thought. The archeological site that McJunkin discovered yielded human remains that became known as "Folsom Man," also over 10,000 years old.

Sadly, McJunkin did not live to learn of the significance of his discovery, passing away in January 1922 in Folsom.

 

An African-American, Fred Simms, is the reason that the University of New Mexico is in Albuquerque and not Santa Fe. Simms was a stenographer and calligrapher in Albuquerque who later became an attorney. He was involved in legal work and the part of Albuquerque then known as "New Town." Many old deeds were notarized by Simms, as were other documents.

When UNM was founded in 1889, Simms, who worked for a Judge Rodey (Rodey Law still exists in the Duke City), did a lot of the legwork and notarizing of the legal papers for the university, while studying law under Rodey. He also transcribed all of the information given to him by Rodey and others in one night — the last before the meeting to present articles to start UNM.

Simms took notes for a committee created by the Territorial Legislature to choose the site of the university. When the committee vote was tied between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Simms was asked to cast the deciding vote. And so Albuquerque got the university.

 

Another African-American active in legal affairs was George W. Malone, New Mexico's first black lawyer. In 1916, he was granted admission to practice law by the New Mexico Supreme Court, after first practicing law in Mississippi from 1910-14. He then moved to Blackdom, NM. Attorney Harold Hurd of Roswell "vouched for Malone's integrity and informed the clerk of court via letter of 4835.16 that ‘most of the colored population called upon him for assistance." When Blackdom failed, Malone moved to Albuquerque, opening an office downtown, but he died not long afterward.

Blackdom is a story itself. Located about 20 miles south of Roswell, Blackdom was founded by Francis Boyer and Daniel Keyes, who walked most of the 2,000 miles from their Georgia homes to found a town for "blacks only." The first site was near Hagerman, southeast of Roswell, but Boyer and others later moved it to a second site, due south of that city, in 1901. Things went well for several years and for a time the town, which was incorporated, had about 300 residents, some businesses, a newspaper and even a post office. Being an agricultural village, hard times first arrived with worms devouring crops; then the pure but shallow artesian wells that the community relied on dried up. By 1916, most of the town was abandoned, with the Boyers moving to and settling in Vado, south of Las Cruces, where some descendants remain today.

Another such town, Dora, never really had a chance. It was settled in the 1870s by freed blacks, but it was soon taken over by area cattlemen.

There are dozens of other stories, including that of Henry O. Flipper, the first black to graduate West Point, who later served in New Mexico; Clara Belle Williams, the first African-American to graduate from NMSU; Frank and Dock Oliver, who were among the first to dig tunnels in the former mining town of Dawson; and of course Delano Lewis, a relative newcomer to the state, who was once the head of NPR and a diplomat under Bill Clinton.

Today, New Mexico's black population is a mere 2.4%, but their additions to the state's history and culture remain underreported, vital and important.

 

 

 

Jeff Berg was a contributing writer to African-American History in New Mexico,
published in 2013 by UNM Press. He lives in Santa Fe.

 

 

 

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