As the NMSU campus celebrates Black History Month, the Open Stacks hopes to highlight the achievements of Black students, faculty, and staff, as well as those throughout New Mexico and the Borderlands.
Many black families migrating to New Mexico around the early part of the 20th century came in hopes of escaping the Jim Crow laws of the South and establishing communities where they could prosper. Families like the Boyers, who founded Blackdom near Roswell, NM and later settled in Vado, NM, set up homesteads in the Mesilla Valley. Other families, like the Brooks and Hiblers, owned businesses or held jobs in town.[i]
“In the early 1920s, an influx of prosperous white southern farmers moved here and bought large tracts of land around the town…they didn’t want their children attending school with black children, and they had the clout to have things their way”.[ii] Racial prejudice towards Blacks was not absent in New Mexico, but this influx further perpetuated those feelings resulting in legislation in favor of school segregation in New Mexico.
In 1924, New Mexico legislature passed a statute allowing for the separation of students based on race. Segregation of classrooms was optional as the law left the decision up to local school boards.
Provided, that where, in the opinion of the county school board or municipal school board and on approval of said opinion by the state board of education, it is for the best advantage and interest of the school that separate rooms be provided for the teaching of pupils of African descent, and said rooms are so provided, such pupils may not be admitted to the school rooms occupied and used by pupils of Caucasian or other descent. Provided, further that such rooms set aside for the teaching of such pupils of African descent shall be as good and as well kept as those used by pupils of Caucasian or other descent, and teaching therein shall be as efficient. Provided, further, that pupils of Caucasian or other descent may not be admitted to the school rooms so provided for those of African descent.[iii]
Several towns, mostly in the southeastern part of the state, chose to segregate their students. Las Cruces was one of those towns.
Built in 1911, Phillips Chapel, the oldest African American church in the state, served as a schoolhouse for Las Cruces’ black students who were transferred out of other city schools in 1924. Lincoln High School, as it was called, operated from 1924-1934. It is the only original building in town left standing that served as a segregated school. According to Clarence Fielder, a graduate of and future educator at Las Cruces’ segregated school, students were not informed of the changes until they showed up for class and were told they were no longer students at their schools.[iv] The church’s property on the northeastern corner of North Tornillo Street and East Lucero Avenue included two one-room shacks. The buildings were moved two blocks north to the corner of Juniper Avenue and North Tornillo Street, not far from the site where a future segregated school would be built. One building was used for the elementary grades and the other was divided into two rooms—one for junior high and the other for upperclassmen.[v] Well-respected Las Cruces educator, Clara Belle Williams (more about her in next week’s post), taught the early grades while her husband, Jasper, was school principal and taught the high school grades. Thirty students graduated from Lincoln High during its tenure.[vi]
In 1934, the Las Cruces school district opened Booker T. Washington School at 755 East Chestnut Avenue as the town’s dedicated school for African American children. It was a four-room adobe building that housed both elementary and secondary students. Students like Fielder and Harold Morris felt their teachers were excellent[vii], but the extent of the subjects taught was lacking in comparison to other schools, especially in subjects like chemistry.[viii] Supplies were also limited. Students were often involved in raising funds to purchase items like basketballs and curtains for the school’s auditorium.[ix]
The school remained segregated through 1953, just before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation of public school classrooms was unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case. By the start of the 1953 school year, the high school class was so small students were moved to Las Cruces Union High School. Booker T. Washington School eventually became an integrated elementary school. The first year of integration, students were given the option to remain at Booker T. Washington or attend their neighborhood school. Many students chose to stay that first year. For most students, the integration was an easy transition as their classmates were also their neighborhood friends.[x] The original adobe building has since been replaced, but the school, still open today, is one of the oldest in town.
Many of the students who attended Booker T. Washington School graduated and went on to higher education institutions like Howard, Tuskegee, and Tougaloo. Clara Belle Williams’ three sons all became physicians. Clarence Fielder became an educator and taught in the public schools and at NMSU for many years. Harold Morris joined the Army Reserves and served in Vietnam before attending NMSU.
While Las Cruces did try to provide facilities for its black students, although inadequate in comparison to those of their peers, it still participated in the racial injustice of segregating the education of its young people.
[i] Moody, Terry. (2003). United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Phillips Chapel CME Church, Las Cruces, Doña Ana County, New Mexico. Las Cruces, NM. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/fae58233-608e-4192-9ea7-2759e25665cd.
[ii] O’Brien, Claire. “When schools were segregated: former students remember Booker T. Washington School.” Las Cruces Sun-News, February 17, 2002, Section C-1.
[iii] Martinez, J. L. (n.d.). Opinion No. 51-5409. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://nmonesource.com/nmos/ag/en/item/10451/index.do?q=55-1201.
[iv] Lopez, R., Ayadi, N., & Lucero, J. (2011) A Walk with Clarence Fielder [Film]. Las Cruces, NM: New Mexico State University.
[v] New Mexico State University. (1980, May 10) Interview of Clara Belle Williams. Hobson-Huntsinger University Archives. New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM.
[vi] Moody. (2003). Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Phillips Chapel CME Church.
[vii] O’Brien. “When schools were segregated: former students remember Booker T. Washington School”.
[viii] Fielder, Clarence (1988, July 7). An oral history with Clarence Fielder/Interviewer: Eloise Evans. Rio Grande Historical Collections (RG-T0240), New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM.
[x] Lopez, R., Ayadi, N., & Lucero, J. (2011) A Walk with Clarence Fielder.