New Mexico and racial discrimination

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In the early 1900s, cowboy Joseph Schmedding reached Albuquerque by horseback, after a nine-day ride from a ranch at Carrizozo. Thirsty, he stopped for a drink at a downtown saloon. In his memoirs, written long afterward, he reported that Hispanos and a sprinkling of Chinese upon terms of equality were admitted and served in all saloons. But blacks did not enjoy the same privilege.

“Some places refused service to colored customers at any price, and others imposed excessive charges to discourage their patronage,” said the cowboy. During the same period, an incident occurred at Des Moines, a village in northeastern New Mexico, that showed another side of the coin. One Saturday afternoon, hands from a neighboring ranch rode in for a meal at the cafe. One of their number, George McJunkin, was black and was always cheerfully served. On this occasion, however, an out-of-state traveler sat at the counter and complained to the management about having to eat next to a Negro. In a flash, the white cowboys rushed the stranger, grabbed him by the collar, and tossed him into the street.

Such episodes as that perhaps show why New Mexico long had a reputation for tolerance. But as Schmedding’s statement also illustrates, it also had pockets of prejudice. Blacks began trickling into the territory soon after the arrival of the railroad in 1880. The majority settled in Albuquerque because of opportunities for employment. By 1910 two churches, the African Methodist Episcopal and the Mount Olive Baptist, had become centers of the black community. Prior to statehood in 1912, a few families had started their own businesses that enjoyed some prosperity. These included small restaurants, a dairy, a carpet cleaner and a moving company. In that year, three brothers of the Bryant family began a highly successful messenger and delivery service that encouraged other black entrepreneurs. Although social discrimination existed, Albuquerque of the 1920s seemed to be developing a new attitude of toleration. That became evident in 1928 when Ku Klux Klan organizers held a membership rally and cross-burning on the West Mesa. It proved a fiasco! A crowd of curious onlookers was treated to a show as Sheriff Tony Ortiz and two deputies appeared and ordered the marchers to unmask. The Catholic Church warned the faithful to steer clear of the Klan, and the Albuquerque Journal advised readers “not to be suckers.”

Progress slowed and was even reversed during the Depression and World War II as newcomers from the South brought their segregationist policies that crept into housing and public services. But a backlash began, led by students at the University of New Mexico. In 1948 the student newspaper, the Lobo, started listing businesses that excluded blacks, and the student senate called for a boycott of such places. Many offenders capitulated. A coalition of students, Hispano organizations, churches and the NAACP local chapter carried their complaint to the Albuquerque City Commission. After long study, the commission, on Lincoln’s birthday 1952, passed an antidiscrimination ordinance, heavily laden with penalties. Following its example, the state Legislature three years later introduced a statewide bill prohibiting discrimination. It took a number of years to root out segregation in Little Texas, as the state’s southeast quadrant was nicknamed. An older resident of Santa Fe today recalls that when he played high school football in the 1950s, the team was bussed to Roswell for a game. Upon arrival, they went to dine at a nice restaurant, but were informed that their lone black player would not be served. Already seated, the entire team rose in a body and left.

Offenses continued longest with regard to burial practices, with blacks being separated from others. Some little New Mexican towns had only a bare patch of ground fenced with barb wire for the municipal graveyard. It was not uncommon for blacks to be buried just outside the fence. In Albuquerque’s prestigious Fairview Cemetery, their burials remained segregated until about 1962. Still, New Mexico got launched on the reform track long before the Civil Rights Movement initiated social change in other parts of the country.