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New Mexico’s African American Legacy: Visible, Vital, Valuable

Since the 1860s, African Americans have been a significant presence in our state. The 1850 U.S. Census lists 61,525 Anglos and just 22 blacks in the New Mexico Territory. Near the end of the Civil War, four black regiments--the famous Buffalo Soldiers--were sent to the area to protect settlers. Many returned to the south, where they shared stories of the lands they had seen.

The advent of the railroad drew more black residents, attracted by jobs in rail service and the hotels and restaurants that cropped up around train stations. Others brought their skills as farmers; some opened barbershops, mechanics shops, boarding houses and catering businesses.

By 1920, 5,733 African Americans claimed New Mexico as home. The 2000 Census shows nearly 63,000.

From 1870 to the 1950s, Albuquerque had segregated hotels, restaurants and movie theaters. Las Cruces schools were segregated. Even in Albuquerque's integrated schools, social practices isolated African Americans. At graduation, they were seated separately; their pictures were in the back sections of yearbooks; they were unwelcome at proms and so held their own parties. 

Black workers could only rise so far. African American men were generally relegated to jobs as porters, janitors and cooks; women were limited to jobs as maids, caretakers, domestic cooks and caterers.

The Doña Ana County branch of the NAACP formed in the 1930s and was credited, in part, with the peaceful integration of Las Cruces schools in 1957. Many people credited the smooth transition to the fact that Anglo, Hispanic and African American children had always played together after school--a true-life example, perhaps, of how "a child shall lead them."

The 1964 Accommodations Act brought integration to all of New Mexico.



"New Mexico’s African American Legacy: Visible, Vital, Valuable." Exhibit, Media release; New Mexico History Museum (c) 2011. Accessed 2/1/2014.  .