Blacks did not arrive in large numbers until the passage of the Federal Homestead Act of 1862. This Act enabled over 100,000 former Black Southerners to stake a claim in lands in the West. The Act has been called one of the most important pieces of legislation in the History of the United States. Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln after the secession of the Southern states, the Act turned over vast amounts of public land to private citizens. Two hundred seventy million acres or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this Act.
A homesteader had to be a head of household and at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land. Immigrants, farmers from the East, single women and former slaves traveled west. The one condition in homesteading was that the claimants “prove up.” This entailed living on the land, building a home, and making improvements and farming for five years before they were eligible for ownership. A filing fee of $18.00 was required.
In the 1870’s Dora, a town in the Cimarron Valley, was homesteaded by freed Blacks from Texas before the town was overrun by cattlemen. Blacks also homesteaded near Raton, Las Cruces, and Clayton.
The most famous all-Black community in New Mexico was Blackdom. The story of the settlement of Blackdom is told in detail in a “Colores” program produced by KUNM Public Television. Blackdom was a modest town on the plains of the New Mexico territory. It was the first all-Black settlement in the New Mexico territory and had its inception at the end of the 19th century. The town was located 18 miles southwest of Roswell.
Frank Boyer’s father, Henry Boyer, a freedman, had been a wagoner with the U.S. Army during the United States-Mexican War. When Henry returned home to Georgia, he told his son about the beauty of the West. Frank Boyer grew up after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era influenced by such writers as W. E.
B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. Blacks were becoming teachers, politicians, and businessmen. However, from 1877 to 1900, when the Reconstruction failed, the times became extremely dangerous for Blacks. Though the 14th Amendment to the Constitution had been passed, the reality remained that Blacks could not vote; they were illiterate and largely unable to own land. If they elected to remain in the South, they had little choice but to become sharecroppers, which led to greater indebtedness to wealthy landowners. Many, including Frank Boyer, saw the West as the promise of a fresh start.
Frank Boyer, a graduate of Morehouse University, was a teacher. He met his wife, Ella Louise McGruder, a graduate from Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, at a teacher’s summer school session. Their relationship was based on common religious and educational values. The couple had four children when Frank set out for New Mexico in 1896.
Frank was discontented with the way Blacks were being threatened in the south. He was involved in meetings to influence Blacks to speak out and protest against slavery. The Ku Klux Klan threatened Frank Boyer so his father suggested that he go west to “a land where you can have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and no slavery.” Some sources indicate that Frank and one of his students, Daniel Keyes, walked most of the 2,000 mile distance, stopping to pick up work along the way arriving in Eddy County in 1898. The descendents of the Boyer family state that Frank traveled west with two of his students, Keyes and another student named Ragsdale. In 1901 Ella and the children arrived in New Mexico.
At the time Blackdom was settled it was lush with artesian wells. Frank Boyer advertised in newspapers for Black homesteaders. He invited the new arrivals into his home and helped them build a house, prepare the land, and plant their first crop.
Blackdom’s heyday was around 1908 when it was home to 25 families with pproximately 300 people. The families claimed about 15,000 acres under various land laws. It had a post office, blacksmith shop, stores, and a hotel. A weekly one- leaf newspaper was published. The most admired structure, the Blackdom Baptist Church, which also served as the schoolhouse, today is the main living area of a home in Cottonwood, New Mexico.
Cowboys in the vicinity of Blackdom helped themselves to provisions if the homesteaders were not at home. Doors were never locked. Cowboys could come into a
homestead and sleep, eat and leave a note saying they had been there. During roundup time, these visitors would often return to the homesteads and present their hosts with a quarter or half side of beef.
Farms in Blackdom produced cotton, cantaloupe, onions, alfalfa, and sugar beets. Among Blackdom’s residents was Mississippi born W. T. Malone who was the first Black to pass the New Mexico bar exam in 1914 and practice law.
In 1916 changes came that would cause the demise of Blackdom. Worms appeared, there was an alkali buildup in the soil, and slowly the artesian wells dried up. Men had to work on nearby farms to enable them to “prove up” or make the necessary improvement to their land in order to fulfill their obligation under the Homestead Act. Ironically, in 1921 when Frank Boyer legally filed the plan for the town, the water table had been severely lowered. Families from Blackdom were already moving to Roswell, Dexter, and Las Cruces. The bank foreclosed on Frank and Ella Boyer’s house. The Boyers moved to Pacheco and then to Vado, New Mexico, where Frank Boyer developed another Black community. Two hundred twenty members of the Boyer family remain residents of the Vado area today.
Ella Boyer, eventually the mother of seven boys and four girls, was “the first lady” of Blackdom. Ella’s sister Willie Frances was married to Daniel Keyes who had accompanied Frank on the 2,000 mile trek to New Mexico. Both Ella and Willie Frances were schoolteachers and had large families. They taught their children at home. Ella helped with the living, dining and sleeping quarters for new Blackdom residents. She never worked outside the home but taught her daughters to cook and care for a home. She was active in religious, fraternal and civic affairs of the community and state. She served as president of the Women’s Department of the State Baptist Convention and was Grand Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star of New Mexico.
W. E. Utterback writes of Blackdom in Looking Back Seventy-three Years and describes the early Juneteenth festivities which he calls “Emancipation Day”: “About five miles west of Greenfield was a place called Blackdom. A number of Negroes homesteaded this land. They were a bunch of hard working people and gave no trouble in any way. On Emancipation Day they invited the white folks out to a big feed. The women were excellent cooks. After the feed, the Negroes challenged the white men to a baseball game. We got up a team from Dexter and Greenfield. I caught in that game, and we played on the open prairie with no backstop. I had to do a good job of catching…By the way, we lost the game.”
Dr. Andrew Wall, former Director of Black Studies at New Mexico State University considers the meaning of Blackdom. This is his response: “It means people who were reared as slaves and treated as animals and not considered human—yet had dreams.”
Personal Account of Albuquerque Resident,
Myrtle Phillips, Heir to Land in Blackdom
Myrtle Phillips, a longtime Albuquerque resident, is the granddaughter of Crutcher
Eubank who walked to Blackdom from Kentucky to homestead after seeing Frank Boyer’s newspaper advertisements about the all-Black town. Eubank finalized his homestead claim in 1908. Between 1906 and 1911, he built a small house and homesteaded his 160 acre tract. He added improvements to the land for each of five years to “prove up” and fulfill the homesteading requirements. Myrtle recalls that he raised horses, cows and chickens, and grew feed and garden vegetables including corn and beans. When he was unable to make a living from homesteading, he walked 16 miles to Roswell daily to work the land of a White farmer. He and his wife had eleven children.
Her grandfather left Blackdom and moved his family to Roswell in 1920. She was born in Roswell in 1914; she never lived in Blackdom. Her father was from Texas and worked for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. He met her mother when the train stopped near Roswell. In 1922 her parents moved their family to Albuquerque for better job opportunities and integrated schools. Her father had a restaurant on Silver between 4th and 5th. Then he moved to North Arno and peddled fish that he ordered from Texas. In the early 1930’s he went into the scavenger business. Later he had a junkyard and service station.
Myrtle Phillips attended elementary school at the First Ward on Tijeras and Arno, and then Lincoln Junior High and Albuquerque High. She graduated from high school in 1932 and was one of two Blacks in her graduating class. She married her husband Rubin in 1968 and became the stepmother of seven children. Her husband worked for the railroad as a porter. He served in the Navy during WWII despite the fact that his supervisors preferred that he volunteer for the Army as most minorities did. He graduated from Phillips Community College in Clovis in 1950 with a business degree. After the War he worked for Chevron that had a plant at 52 South Broadway.
Phillips and his first wife purchased property from Brenda Dabney’s mother, Virginia
Ballou, in a two block area that Ballou developed in northeast Albuquerque. Myrtle Phillips and her husband were active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They are lifetime members; at one time she was secretary of the Albuquerque Chapter.
She and her husband still visit Blackdom nearly every year. She keeps a notebook of laminated photographs and deeds of her grandfather’s property in Blackdom. Also in the notebook are plot maps showing the location of the homestead. She has a box labeled “artifacts” that is full of tin cans, pottery shards, and small pieces of adobe that she has colleted from the property over the years. There is also a shiny blue piece of a plate that she finds pleasing. She has inherited her grandfather’s property and will pass it on to her children. She remembers that once her grandfather left the homestead, no one in the family mentioned Blackdom again.