The Civil War ended and four million Black slaves won their freedom in 1865. Tragically, most former slaves faced lives of continued oppression and racism long after the war and their legal enslavement had ended.
Most worked in terrible poverty and were subject to Jim Crow laws that enforced strict segregation in Southern states. The use of all public facilities, from schools and theaters to transportation and pools, was separated by race.
By the end of the 19th century, millions of African-Americans began to flee the South in search of better lives, fair wages and equal rights free of Jim Crow laws. Many fled north to cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
Others fled west to homestead in small communities of their own. In one of seven such communities, a few Black families established a settlement known as Blackdom in eastern New Mexico.
Blackdom was founded in 1903. Led by Francis “Frank” Boyer, its 13 original families helped recruit other southern Blacks to a new town south of Roswell.
By 1909, Blackdom’s families had filed homestead papers and begun to farm. Sixty-four residents eventually received homestead patents, realizing their dream of owning and working their own land.
While most residents lived on their homesteads, some lived in a small, central settlement with a general store, a church that doubled as a school and a post office located in the store. At its height, Blackdom’s population equaled about 300 men, women and children.
Residents often gathered to enjoy their Black culture and traditions, usually without White interference. Devout Christians, they built a “negro church,” largely with funds raised by Blackdom’s “concert troupe” that sang in neighboring towns.
Juneteenth, Black liberation day, was celebrated as of 1910. Other community events included picnics, baseball games, all-day singalongs, dances, ice cream socials, sewing circles and large Christmas gatherings.
With a Black attorney (the only one in New Mexico), a Black notary public and a Black justice of the peace, Blackdom’s residents felt less subject to discrimination in their local judicial system. Black male and female teachers taught grades one to eight, making the small local school less subject to white educational control.
But all did not go well after several years of progress. While fortunate in their first years in farming, dry seasons followed in 1917, 1918 and 1922. Strong winds, an infestation of worms and declining crop prices only added to their misery.
Many homesteaders took extra jobs to help make ends meet. Men often worked on nearby White farms and ranches. Women often worked as domestic servants in towns like Roswell, but it was seldom enough.
As conditions worsened, families pulled up stake and relocated to towns as far away as Las Cruces. Even founder Frank Boyer left with his wife, their eight children and Frank’s 96-year-old father.
Blackdom’s post office closed in 1919. Its church building was moved to Eddy County. By mid-1920, the Artesia Advocate reported, “Only a few vacant buildings mark the old site.” The last family left in 1929.
Tragically, in leaving Blackdom, many families faced the same harsh racism they had escaped from in the South. In Roswell, Blacks lived in a segregated neighborhood called “Ragtown.” Roswell was also home to the Ku Klux Klan’s largest Klan in all of New Mexico.
In many towns of eastern New Mexico, Black students attended inferior, segregated schools. In Albuquerque, Blacks, who sought homeownership, faced segregated zoning ordinances.
Not content to regress to their former status, some families joined Frank Boyer in Vado, a small, largely Black community south of Las Cruces. Some homesteaded and prospered in Vado and the surrounding area.
I sometimes wonder what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have thought of Frank Boyer and the settlement of Blackdom. Dr. King would have undoubtedly admired the Black farmers’ courage in migrating to New Mexico and standing on their own by homesteading and attempting to control their own school, store and court.
Dr. King would have realized that Black independence in communities of their own making could only go so far. Nothing could be done to control bad weather, destructive pests and poor crop prices on the national level. Nature and the outside world defeated Blackdom, not its community members who worked so hard to live in peace and enjoy even a small degree of freedom.
Years of struggle remained for Blacks to win their rights in an integrated American society rather than in separatist settlements, no matter their founders’ best intentions.
(The 30th annual celebration and remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. community solidarity and candlelight vigil will be held at 6 p.m., Monday, Jan. 15, at the Belen Public Library. The event is sponsored by the city of Belen’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Commission. Please remember and try to abide by the commission’s motto: Living the Dream; Let Freedom Ring; Building Bridges for Unity and Understanding.)
Richard Melzer, guest columnist
Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who taught at The University of New Mexico–Valencia campus for more than 35 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he has served as the society’s president several times.
He has written many books and articles about New Mexico history, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite topic. His newest book, a biography of Casey Luna, was published in the spring of 2021.
Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at [email protected].