By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily
Mattie Moore was born in 1869, just 10 years before the first mass migration of African Americans from the South after the Civil War happened. These migrants — most of them were former slaves — became known as “Exodusters,” a name based on the biblical Exodus, when Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land.
Though I couldn’t find the place of birth for Mattie, I feel sure she would have been a part of, or have been influenced by this group. The draw of the wide-open spaces, the Homestead Act, and having a home of their own was great during these times for every race, but particularly for the blacks as they were coming out of the strife of the Civil War, slavery in the South, and finally freedom for all.
Building a life in the West was not easy. Lacking adequate supplies, many families built homes out of sod, the roots and dirt under the tough prairie grasses. Once they managed to establish homes, people found a life on the desolate lands lonely and difficult. Harsh winters brought blizzards, and summer brought drought and insect infestations, which often destroyed the farmers’ entire crops — then there was always the worry for having enough water for livestock, the crops and the farmers themselves. About one-third of those who moved west under the Homestead Act failed, and abandoned their plots.
Imagine what the longing, the strife, the determination was for African American pioneers to have freedom and a land and life of their own. Now imagine what it would have been like for a single black female, this was Mattie Moore.
Eighteen miles south of Roswell, a dream began with a tiny community named Blackdom, an African American colony that was founded in 1909, on free government land by Francis M. Boyer. Boyer was the manager of Blackdom Realty Company. He, along with George W. Malone — New Mexico’s first black attorney — and another notable founder of Blackdom, were to become close friends and allies of Moore Wilson.
Moore Wilson remains one of the most notable female entrepreneurs of Chaves County during the 20th century. Known as Mattie Moore in Blackdom, she quickly familiarized herself with community politics, business, the land and the legal system.
She joined forces with Boyer to file for a soldiers’ homestead claim. An initial dismissal did not stop her from appealing. After several attempts, the general land office in Washington D.C. rejected her entry, and her case was closed.
With a strong determination, Moore worked outside the homestead to make ends meet. She worked 18 miles north of Blackdom in Roswell. Moore had decided to run a brothel and expanded her control of that market in the Bawdy District. Moore was adept with the letter of the law and escaped prosecution multiple times. Social acceptability was of little concern to Moore. She focused on ensuring that her business remained profitable and open.
In March of 1914, the city of Roswell adopted an ordinance making prostitution a misdemeanor subject to fines and 30 days in jail plus the original fine that came along with being caught engaging in “bawdy business.” If you were a “solicitor” in a bawdy house, that was already an offense against a city ordinance, but after the start of Moore’s takeover of the Bawdy District in 1913, the city of Roswell reauthorized the ordinance with tougher sentencing guidelines.
In 1913, the Roswell city directory lists Moore at 201 S. Virginia Ave., and her occupation as “cook.” The next 1916 Roswell city directory lists her address as 201 S. Virginia Ave., but no occupation is listed.
Following is a list of charges and judgments I found against Moore, published in the Roswell Daily Record, starting April 5, 1917. The list may not be complete.
April 5, 1917
“Mittie Moore Captured
“The present city administration, carrying out its program inaugurated some time ago for a better and cleaner Roswell, yesterday caused the arrest of Mittie Moore, a colored woman living on South Virginia Avenue, charging her with prostitution. She was arraigned before Judge Parsons yesterday afternoon and entered a plea of guilty at which time her case was set for hearing at 3 o’clock this afternoon. Mittie Moore is an old offender against the city and a character well known to the city Police Department. For many days she has been under the close supervision of the city police and yesterday, night policeman Jim Johnson secured the last link in the chain. Mayor Mullis and the present administration are to be highly complimented on their efforts to “clean up.” They are making long strides in the right direction and many other offenders are at present treading on rather slippery ground and unless either right their ways or depart from these parts forever, will one day find themselves before the bar of judgment and the judgment is to be no joke either.”
April 6, 1917
“Mittie Moore Wilson found guilty and was fined $50 and a 30-days suspended jail sentence.”
Nov. 1, 1917
“Guilt Not Proven
“Not proven was the result of the city against Mittie Moore in Judge Parsons Court this afternoon. As an evidence of what city attorney John E. Clayton and the police force is up against, this case is a good example. Sunday night at the home of Mittie Moore, a dive on South Virginia, two pistol shots were fired. This morning the city attorney and chief of police visited Hampton Lee, a negro in the employ of the Elks saloon. Lee stated that Mittie had fired two shots at one John Wilson, that both passed through Wilson’s coat and that he stood by and watched Wilson take the gun away from Mittie. This afternoon when placed on the witness stand, he denied all the facts, saying that he was blocks away when the shooting occurred. So it is, that Mittie is free again.”
Nov 13, 1917
“Grand Jury Makes Report
“At 3 o’clock this afternoon the grand jury made its final report for this season. In the final report there were seven true bills and one no bill. The one no bill was against Mittie Moore Wilson. As to the true bills, utmost secrecy is being maintained. The jury has returned 17 true bills and three no bills during its session. In the final report, the county and city officers were commended for their efforts to put down vice and maintain morality.”
Dec. 5, 1917
“Mittie Moore Here Again
“The police force last night raided the home of Mittie Moore on South Virginia and this morning made charges in Judge Parsons court against Mittie for running a bawdy house. The police say they have the goods on her this time and for a time at least, they will have her placed where the dogs can’t bite her.”
May 21, 1919
“Case dismissed against Mittie Moore, because of faulty complaint.”
On June 29, 1922, a short entry mentions Moore for disorderly conduct.
April 5, 1924
“Judge Fletcher yesterday took the case against Mittie Moore Wilson under advisement. The defendant was charged with a violation of the Volstead Act. Charges were also brought for transportation and the sale of intoxicating liquor.”
April 27, 1925
“Charges against Mittie Moore Wilson in the sale of intoxicating liquor.
“The famous Mittie Moore Wilson case has ended, for the defendant this morning paid into court the sum of $130, fine and costs. This was an alleged disorderly house case, which was appealed from the District Court but the appeal was never perfected.”
May 2, 1925
“The case of the State against Mittie Moore Wilson charged with the sale of intoxicating liquor, is on trial before a jury in District Court this afternoon.”
May 4, 1926
“Mittie Moore Wilson was found guilty Saturday afternoon by a jury in District Court on the charge of sale of intoxicating liquor. Judge Brice has not passed sentence in this case.”
Aug. 30, 1929
“Mittie Moore Wilson, local negress, was arrested this morning by police officers on the charge of possession of intoxicating liquor. She entered a plea of not guilty when arraigned before Judge Winston and her trial is set for 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. Officers said they found a considerable quantity of liquor in her possession.”
Sept. 13, 1929
“Mittie Moore, who has been a police character in Roswell for many years, pleaded guilty this morning in police court to the charge of possession of intoxicating liquor and was given a fine of $50 and the costs.”
Jan. 6, 1930
“A complaint was filed this morning in Judge Winston’s court by Mittie Moore Wilson against Eddie Moore, charging abuse and threats of violence. No disposition has been made in this case.”
Moore translated her business strategies in Roswell to land acquisitions in Blackdom. Though she failed in her earlier attempts, Moore’s steadfast nature resulted in a patent for 320 acres in 1920.
Moore also claimed another 320 acres under the Homestead Act for stock raising and received a patent in 1922.
A total of 640 acres under her name made Moore the largest single landowner in Chaves County. This land became even more valuable when oil was discovered. Leases provided income, but drought and the stock market left Moore unable to pay her taxes.
Moore’s life ended on Aug. 30, 1936, in Flagstaff, Arizona, as the result of a car crash.
For better or for worse, one must wonder what Moore’s life would have been like had she been able to simply come West, file a claim, pay for her land, and have her own homestead and family.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.