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A museum exhibit remembers Blackdom, a Black homestead founded in 1903

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Back in 1903, 13 Black homesteaders founded a settlement in southern New Mexico and called it Blackdom. The town drew people from all across the country over the next two decades before it was abandoned. KUNM's Alice Fordham reports two museum exhibits have resurrected the history of the all-Black farming community.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Artist Nikesha Breeze first laid eyes on what's left of their great-great-grandfather's town last year.

NIKESHA BREEZE: As far as you can see, it's all sky and yellow earth.

FORDHAM: Blackdom was only inhabited till the 1920s, partly because of drought, but traces remain.

BREEZE: Blackdom Center itself has two crumbling cornerstones left in the very center of the property, which used to be the foundation of the church and school.

FORDHAM: And those traces are telling. Blackdom was a farming town, but it was founded by a teacher, and education was prized.

BREEZE: For so many African American families in that time because of so many years of oppression and it being literally illegal to read and write became one of the, like, foremost ways of securing freedom.

FORDHAM: When Breeze visited Blackdom, a collective of Black artists joined.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORDHAM: Lazarus Nance Letcher played specially composed viola music...

BREEZE: Songs and sounds and structures that were used by those early homesteaders.

FORDHAM: ...While Breeze and another artist danced and moved. Film of the performance is part of an exhibit at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

BREEZE: There's, you know, a sort of overarching idea that there's not a lot of Black folk in New Mexico. So the idea that there is generational history here in New Mexico for Black and African American people is something important.

FORDHAM: And many families from Blackdom still live in New Mexico.

RODNEY BOWE: Not only were my family members pioneers, they were educational and faith-based pioneers. And so that really put a steel rod in my back to really be the best that I can be.

FORDHAM: Rodney Bowe is the director of the Men of Color Initiative at the University of New Mexico.

BOWE: My great uncle was the educator - conducted school there, the schoolhouse.

FORDHAM: Bowe grew up in Roswell, which is where many people from Blackdom ended up. His community had deep roots in New Mexico and a deep pride in African American culture. They lived next to an African Methodist Episcopal church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing, unintelligible).

FORDHAM: This is a recording of the church choir.

BOWE: I do remember that was our central gathering place not only for our family, but for Blacks in the city.

FORDHAM: And ties with Blackdom were kept alive at an annual family party.

BOWE: A hundred - 200 people celebrating this family. And to know - and I didn't know that at the time that everyone came from Blackdom, you know, from these roots.

FORDHAM: Blackdom and other Black settlements are also remembered in this new exhibit at Albuquerque Museum, curated by the African American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico, with video testimony, artifacts and photos.

HAKIM BELLAMY: Looking at old family photos, even if they're not my family, of folks in, like, military uniforms and weddings and, like, school - I'm just, like, immediately, like, teary-eyed because I'm just, like, man, this is, like, me digging through a box of photos underneath my mom's bed.

FORDHAM: Hakim Bellamy worked on the show looking to show Black historical daily life and show people, particularly young Black people, like his 14-year-old son, what an achievement it was to build that life.

BELLAMY: Just in hard work and being brave and going out on a limb and taking a risk that you, too, can do this extraordinarily, ordinary thing.

FORDHAM: He says, in all of our families, there's greatness. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Albuquerque.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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