African Reserves

History of segregation in Las Cruces public schools

Many black families who immigrated to New Mexico in the early part of the 20th century came in hopes of escaping Southern Jim Crow laws and establishing communities where they could thrive.

Families, like the Boyer who founded Blackdom near Roswell, and then settled in Vado, established farms in the Mesilla Valley. Other families, like the Brooks and Hiblers, owned businesses or had jobs in town.

However, the schools in the Mesilla Valley would soon be separated. Much of the information in this column comes from Claire O’Brien’s article “When the Schools Were Separated: Alumni Remember the Booker T. Washington School,” which appeared in 2002 in the Las Cruces Soleil-News; as well as interviews with prominent black citizens Clara Belle Williams and Clarence Fielder, during their lifetime.

O’Brien, in his 2002 article, said: “In the early 1920s an influx of prosperous white farmers from the south settled here and bought large tracts of land around town… they didn’t want to. that their children attend school with black children, and they had the power to do things their own way.

Racial prejudice against blacks was not absent in New Mexico, but this influx further perpetuated those feelings which resulted in legislation supporting school segregation in New Mexico.

In 1924, the New Mexico legislature passed a law authorizing the separation of students on the basis of race. The segregation of classes was optional because the law left the decision to local school boards.

In the opinion of the then Attorney General: “Provided that, in the opinion of the county school board or the municipal school board and after approval of such opinion by the state school board, it is It is in the best interests and interests of the school that separate rooms be provided for the education of students of African descent, and that such rooms are provided, such students may not be admitted into occupied classrooms and used by students of Caucasian or other descent. On condition, moreover, that the rooms reserved for the teaching of these pupils of African origin are as good and as well maintained as those used by the pupils of Caucasian or other origin, and that the teaching is as effective there . On condition, moreover, that pupils of Caucasian or other descent cannot be admitted in the school rooms thus provided for those of African descent.

Several cities, mainly in the southeastern part of the state, have chosen to separate 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 school for black students from Las Cruces who transferred from other schools in the city in 1924. Lincoln High School, as seen ‘called, operated from 1924 to 1934. It is the only original building in town still standing that served as a separate school.

According to Clarence Fielder, graduate and future educator of the Las Cruces Separate School, students were only informed of the changes when they showed up to class and were told they were no longer students. in their schools.

The church property at the northeast corner of North Tornillo Street and East Lucero Avenue included two one-room cabins. The buildings were moved two blocks north at the corner of Juniper Avenue and North Tornillo Street, not far from the site where a future separate school would be built. One building was used for elementary classes and the other was divided into two rooms, one for lower secondary and the other for students in upper grades. Well-respected Las Cruces educator, Clara Belle Williams, taught the early years while her husband, Jasper, was the principal of the school and taught the high school years. Thirty students graduated from Lincoln High during his tenure.

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In 1934, the Las Cruces School District opened Booker T. Washington School at 755 East Chestnut Avenue as a city school dedicated to African American children. It was a four-room adobe building that housed both elementary and secondary students. Students such as Fielder and Harold Morris rated their teachers as excellent, but the breadth of subjects taught was insufficient compared to other schools, especially in subjects like chemistry. Supplies were also limited. Students were often involved in fundraising to purchase items like basketballs and curtains for the school auditorium.

The school remained separate until 1953, just before the United States Supreme Court declared the segregation of public school classrooms unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. At the start of the 1953 school year, the high school class was so small that the students transferred to Las Cruces Union High School.

Booker T. Washington School eventually became an integrated elementary school. In the first year of integration, students had the option of staying at Booker T. Washington or attending their neighborhood school. Many students have chosen to stay this first year. For most of the students, integration was an easy transition as their classmates were also their neighborhood friends. The original adobe building has since been replaced, but the school, still open today, is one of the oldest in the city.

Many students who attended Booker T. Washington School graduated and went to higher education institutions like Howard, Tuskegee, and Tougaloo. Clara Belle Williams’ three sons have all become doctors. Clarence Fielder became an educator and taught in public schools and at the NMSU for many years. Harold Morris joined the Army Reserves and served in Vietnam before joining NMSU.

While Las Cruces tried to provide facilities for her black students, although insufficient compared to their peers, she still participated in the racial injustice of segregation in the education of her young people.

Elizabeth Villa is an Archives Specialist for the Archives and Special Collections of the New Mexico State University Library.

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