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Seminar on Blackdom attracts large online audience

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An online seminar hosted by the New Mexico Humanities Council (NMHC) on the historical township Blackdom on Feb. 23 attracted 87 participants. The audience was able to learn about the latest research and insights into the cultural and historical significance of the township of Blackdom, founded in 1903, 18 miles south of Roswell and 8 miles west of Dexter. By the mid-1920s, most residents had left, turning Blackdom into a ghost town.

Bethany Tabor, NMHC program officer, served as the moderator. She introduced the speakers, which included Janice Dunnahoo of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico (HSSNM) Archives in Roswell. Dunnahoo is a contributing author for the West Texas Historical Association, Wild West Journal, True West Magazine, Texas-New Mexico Border Archives Journal and a weekly contributor to the Roswell Daily Record.

Dunnahoo answered questions given to her beforehand by Tabor, which asked about the process of collecting archival material on ghost towns; whether that process had been the same for Blackdom; and how much archival material for Blackdom is housed in the archives of HSSNM.

“A town often becomes a ghost town because the economic activity that supported it, usually industrial or agricultural, has failed,” Dunnahoo said. She said this may be based on human-caused or natural factors. “The process for Blackdom is the same,” she said. “If anything, because of its uniqueness and its reason for being, would make it more valuable in collections than others.”

Dunnahoo pointed out that research is more difficult because there are virtually no buildings left, and many of the residents relocated. Dunnahoo said the HSSNM collection most likely is the largest in the state.

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She continued to give a glimpse into the daily life of Blackdom by quoting several newspaper articles, including from the Santa Fe New Mexican and Roswell Daily Record.

Next to speak was professor, philosopher and historian Dr. Timothy E. Nelson, who presented an overview of his research, including Blackdom. In a shared screen, the audience followed his presentation, including photos and articles. More information about Nelson and his Ph.D. dissertation on Blackdom can be found at blackdomthesis.com.

Nelson’s presentation compared events of 2020 with events in 1919. He spoke about the origins of Blackdom, which included ministers, military men and Freemasons among others. “Blackdom was a real place that started with an inherited idea: The Afro-frontier town, manifested at the turn of the 20th century for African descendants under the conditions of American Blackness. In the 20th century, although Blackdom existed as a town for a brief moment, self-determination and how to achieve it were exemplified in the experiment.”

Nelson spoke about its geography and other data. “At the core of their movement was the exploitation of land through the Homestead process,” he said. He then talked about the advertising campaigns in states from Washington to South Carolina, the organizing of an “Afrotopia,” and the Homestead Records of Blackdom.

“Blackdom was revived as a way to mitigate the impact of New Mexico’s impending statehood,” Nelson said. “And the shift from federal to local power.” Nelson then focused on Blackdom’s timeline, which included the striving of Black women and their achievements, and the growth and development of the town.

“Blackdom became a real place and more than a refuge. Blackdomites preferred farmers to city folks for the sake of increased production. Everyone was required to adjust to the steep learning curve of dry-farming,” Nelson said. He then went deeper into the aspects of farming on desert prairies, as well as circumstances and politics, the Black image at the time, and threats toward Black people throughout the world.

Next to speak was Geni Flores, coordinator of bilingual and TESOL (Teaching English to speakers of other languages) education at Eastern New Mexico University. She is a former instructor of multicultural education, including the multicultural heritage of the Southwest. She has studied Blackdom at length and presented at the university and public school levels.

“I found that Blackdom has fit perfectly into the teaching of multicultural education,” Flores said. She said she met descendants of the Blackdom community in Roswell, which gave her an understanding of the community. This led to annual field trips with her multicultural heritage class, a graduate class of teachers learning about multicultural education and how to incorporate it into their classrooms and curriculum.

Flores shared some of her experiences during the field trips with the audience, as well as what multicultural education entails. “For example, if a teacher is teaching about westward expansion, it’s certainly important for kids to know that pioneers were not all white folks in covered wagons, but that a variety of people came West and came for a variety of reasons,” Flores said. Also, she said that part of the education is to learn about necessities of a community.

“Blackdom fits in perfectly in that. Why the choice of location? The original Blackdom location was going to be much closer to Dexter, but they were, politely put, ‘invited’ to move further west, away from white settlements. So that put them further away from a water source and resulted in the need for wells as opposed to relying on the Pecos River. That further westward expansion influenced where they ended up settling, not by their choice but by those around them,” Flores said.

Flores spoke about her approach to teaching her students about Blackdom. “Blackdom to me is a perfect example of New Mexico history and U.S. history, and how all of us have contributed to the history of the country we all now call home,” she said.

Maya L. Allen, a Ph.D. student in biology at the University of New Mexico, offered a unique aspect with her research into Blackdom and botany, and her efforts to rectify the erasure of Black botanical contributions and highlight the Black botanical experience.

“I have been working to really center my work in reclaiming the work of Black botanists. Blackdom in particular was such an impactful story for me when I discovered it, because it was absent from my New Mexico history education — I was born and raised here. What Blackdom illustrates is a story of resilience. It speaks to what our communities are going through now, especially in the face of climate change and variable monsoons. Many of these people moved across the country to an arid habitat with a whole different climate regime and they had to adapt,” Allen said.

She explained the impact that unreliable precipitation had on the community and that irrigation was challenging, being too far from the Pecos River. Allen showed precipitation charts from the early 1900s, and pointed out the extreme drought in 1916. Allen talked about different crops, agriculture and its connection to slavery.

“We had these people that were learning this land, and you see those remnants of West African culture. We think of slavery as a period of eradication, but enslaved people were not only brought here (the U.S.) for labor. Basically, people were intentionally brought because of the agricultural knowledge that they had. Black people have existed in these spaces of agriculture, of botany,” Allen said. Her goal is that Black children will be encouraged to going into farming and feel empowered by knowing about their agricultural heritage.

For more information about the free seminars provided by the New Mexico Humanities Council online, visit nmhum.org.

Christina Stock may be contacted at 622-7710, ext. 309, or at vision@rdrnews.com.