Planting Seeds of Freedom in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico

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How Blackdom Grew Its Roots through Dry-Farming

In the early twentieth century, Frank Boyer and Daniel Keys undertook a 2,000-mile journey by foot from Pelham, Georgia to Roswell, New Mexico. Motivated to produce a sovereign community and elevate their economic status without the persecution of the US’ Jim Crows Laws, Blackdom was incorporated in 1903 as first Black settlement of the New Mexico Territory.

The recruitment of Southern Black families brought a wealth of Southern and African agricultural knowledge to the Pecos Valley, where they would be challenged by calcareous soils and drought. Despite these challenges, this community cultivated Alfalfa, apples, Sorghum, beans, potatoes, cotton, cantaloupe, onions, and sugar beets. In fact, Boyer boasted the largest hay harvest business in Dexter, NM.

Today, Blackdom is a ghost town and the desert grasslands have been replaced by Chihuahuan Desert scrub. But the legacy lives on through their descendants and in the survival of Vado, NM – a second community founded farther south from Blackdom.

Planting Seeds of Freedom in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico: How Blackdom Grew Its Roots through Dry-Farming
Presentation by Maya L Allen, University of New Mexico Department of Biology
Recorded October 14, 2020 as part of a virtual lecture series by the Holden Botanical Gardens

The story of Blackdom was one that I didn’t hear growing up in New Mexico. This history is absent from our school curriculums.

Maya L Allen

Some excerpts from Maya Allen’s presentation:

“Blackdom, as the name implies, was an all black town in South-Eastern New Mexico. This community with about 300 residents held education at its core and used dry farming as a mechanism for freedom. Blackdom was about sovereignty –it was about cultivating a safe place for Black people to thrive economically, for Black children to grow up empowered and without the oppression of Jim Crow laws and White violence. This haven they created would not have been possible without the botanical relationships these people had. It wasn’t possible without scientific innovation. These people moved to an entirely new environment and had to learn this new land for survival.

It’s imperative that we acknowledge the intimate relationship held by Indigenous Peoples of these lands. Native Peoples have lived in New Mexico and in the Southwestern Region for thousands of years. They are the original dry farmers. Blackdom is located in Mescalero Apache lands. This land was stolen in 1873 when the Mescalero Apache were confined to a reservation by Executive Order by President Ulysses S. Grant –and although the people of Blackdom were cultivating a Utopia, it’s still important that we do not contribute to the erasure of the history of colonization and genocide and that we be honest in the role that homesteading has played in the process of colonization. Land acknowledgements are about respect and about acknowledging the kinship that Native Peoples have cultivated with this land.

Blackdom residents are going to leverage the Homestead Act in order to secure land for their community:

Blackdom Homestead Family (Photo Historical Society for Southern New Mexico)

“The reason they selected New Mexico was in part because of the history. During the Civil War, New Mexico was part of a congressional ban on the expansion of slavery and slavery was very, very rare in New Mexico. When Blackdom’s founders moved to Chavez county in the early 1900’s, racial tensions were not as severe as in the South. Likewise, Jim Crow laws has not been implemented to the same extend as they had been implemented in the South. New Mexico was a much better racial environment than where they were coming from in Georgia for example, or from the Midwest as well as Texas and the rest of the South-Eastern United States.

“One of the challenges the new residents of Blackdom encountered was the climate. These farmers are coming in from different climactic regions, many of them were sharecroppers in the South and they were used to much more precipitation and a lot more green! This forced them to innovate –and the solution was dry-farming:

Dry land farming can be practiced in areas that have significant annual rainfall during the wet season (typically in the winter), but the crops are actually cultivated during the subsequent dry season. Those crops are pulling up moisture that is stored within the soil. Dry land farming is contingent on wet season rain fall, but periods of drought can be mitigated by having a good water pump or having water rights to dig an artisan well.

Blackdom farmers had to learn to dry-farm, for example by giving plants wider than normal spacing, making sure that each individual plant has enough soil moisture in order to sustain it and that plants are not too close together. When the land is tilled, some of that stored moisture is lost, so minimal tilling was practiced as well as strict weed control. It required a community effort in order to successfully do this and they drew on community knowledge in order to select which crops they were going to grow in Blackdom.

“Initially, when people are first moving to Blackdom in 1908, the soils had been able to retain the moisture from a very wet year. The soils in the Pecos Valley are calcareous –derived from limestone. This soil can be productive if you have sufficient moisture or irrigation (however the Pecos River is too far from Blackdom to be used for irrigation). When artesian water was discovered in the valley in 1890, enabling farmers to dig a well and access this source of water to help alleviate drought, farming became a huge part of the economy. Loamy soils are also present in the area, which are great for agriculture and were described as “rich soil and fertile land” in advertisements attracting Black farmers to join the community. The natural biome they were encountering at that time was dominated by Black Grama Grass (Bouteloua eripoda) and Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata).

Photo by Patrick Alexander

“In 1908 people are truly starting to settle in Blackdom due to the successful advertisement campaign and from a period of about 1908 to about 1912 a lot of growth took place. People were moving to Blackdom, starting to cultivate crops, establishing themselves –these are the plentiful years. At the height of Blackdom it included about 300 residents, based on census records. The foundation for this period of growth and the establishment of this township lay in the lucrative business of alfalfa farming:

“Other crops that Blackdom members were growing included millet, corn, cantaloupe, onions, sugar beets, tomatoes, lettuce, golden wax beans, as well as a community apple orchard. Blackdom was using farming to sustain their own community and sell these crops at market –which is pretty phenomenal given the climactic challenges and precipitation levels of this region. They had to capitalize on that soil moisture and they had to capitalize on the good years when they had enough precipitation to water crops but also replenish the moisture in the soil.

“Sorghum bicolor or millet was especially well suited for this region. Sorghum was introduced to America by enslaved African people that were growing it in their subsistence plots. This is a perfect example of integrating the knowledge from Africa into American conditions. Some of the adaptations of this particular plant: it has a very large root to leaf area ratio –in times of drought it can roll its leaves to lessen water loss. Leaves also have a very waxy cuticle, serving as a barrier to further prevent water loss. Sorghum grows well in fertile soils, but it can tolerate salinity and it doesn’t use a lot of nutrients, making it very well suited for this region.

During the initial period with good precipitation, Blackdom flourished. Residents established a post office, store, church and school and even received national recognition. But in 1916, a massive drought set in which made it difficult for Blackdom members to continue farming as their main method for economic employment and freedom.

“By this time, too many wells had been dug in the Pecos Valley, causing the water level to drop and increasing the alkaline content in soils. As a result, a law was passed to prevent additional wells from being created. Blackdom was unable to establish an artesian well in order to deal with the drought of 1916. In the same year, apple crops were destroyed by a worm infestation. In 1917, America enters into WWI and the draft as well as job opportunities in Roswell are pulling residents away.

What to do? The people of Blackdom took their drought stricken, sandy land and together formed an oil company in 1919. By pooling their land, they were able to increase the chances of finding oil and were able to contract with the National Exploration Company for $70,00 (about $1million today). However, this was not a sustainable solution as in the 1930s, oil prices collapsed due to the Great Depression.

In 1921, Blackdom founders Frank and Ella Boyer moved to Vado, New Mexico and residents are slowly leaving the town. By 1928, Blackdom was abandoned.

Vado is the secondary all-black town that the Boyers started. It has fertile land and overall much easier conditions than in Blackdom. Vado is still around today with about 2700 residents.

“Many newspapers depicted Blackdom as a failed social experiment. Some narratives still depict Blackdom as a failure, because it no longer exists. But Blackdom wasn’t a failure. Although Blackdom no longer exists, it still served as a mechanism for economic freedom. The tenants of Blackdom live on through the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of the families that lived there. Blackdom served as a foundation for the culture, the ideas, the strength and the ingenuity to live on through the descendants.

Blackdom wasn’t just a town, it was a vision!

Maya L Allen

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