February 4, 2013
In the early 1900s, a small utopian settlement of African American families took shape in the New Mexico plains about 20 miles south of Roswell. Founded by homesteader Francis Marion Boyer, who was fleeing threats from the Ku Klux Klan, the town of Blackdom, New Mexico, became the state’s first community of African Americans. By 1908, the town had reached its zenith with a thriving population of 300, supporting local businesses, a newspaper and a church. However, after crop failures and other calamities, the town by the late 1920s had rapidly depopulated. Today little remains of the town—an ambitious alternative to the racist realities elsewhere—except a plaque on a lonely highway. But a small relic now lives on at the National Postal Museum, which recently acquired the postal account book kept for Blackdom from 1912 t0 1919.
“Here the black man has an equal chance with the white man. Here you are reckoned at the value which you place upon yourself. Your future is in your own hands.”
Lucy Henderson wrote these words to the editor of The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, in December, 1912, trying to persuade others to come settle in the home she had found in Blackdom. She said, “I feel I owe it to my people to tell them of this free land out here.”
Boyer traveled more than 1,000 miles on foot from Georgia to New Mexico to start a new life and a new town in the land his father once visited during the Mexican-American War. With a loan from the Pacific Mutual Company, Boyer dug a well and began farming. Boyer’s stationery proudly read, “Blackdom Townsite Co., Roswell, New Mexico. The only exclusive Negro settlement in New Mexico.” Though work on the homesteading town began in 1903, the post office would not open until 1912.
When it did, Henderson was able to brag to Chicago readers, “We have a post office, store, church, school house, pumping plant, office building and several residents already established.”
“The climate is ideal,” Henderson claimed in her letter. “I have only this to say,” she went on, “any one coming to Blackdom and deciding to throw in their lot with us will never have cause to regret it.”
By the late 1920s, the town was deserted, after a drought in 1916 and less-than-plentiful yields.
The post office spanned nearly the entire life of the town, operating from 1912 to 1919. Records in the account book detail the money orders coming in and out of Blackdom. “When you look at a money order,” explains Postal Museum specialist Lynn Heidelbaugh, “particularly for a small community setting itself up, this is them sending money back home to their homes and families and setting up their new farms.”
Though Blackdom did not survive and never expanded to the size Lucy Henderson may have hoped, black settlements like it were common elsewhere during a period of migration sometimes called the Great Exodus following the Homestead Act of 1862, particularly in Kansas. According to a 2001 archaeological study on the Blackdom region from the Museum of New Mexico, “During the decade of the 1870s, 9,500 blacks from Kentucky and Tennessee migrated to Kansas. By 1880 there were 43,110 blacks in Kansas.”
Partly pushed out of the South after the failures of Reconstruction, many of the families were also pulled West. The report goes on, “Land speculators used a variety of methods in developing a town’s population. They advertised town lots by distributing handbills, newspapers, and pamphlets to a target population. They sponsored round-trip promotional excursions that featured reduced rail fares for Easterners and offered free land for schools and churches.”
The towns had varying degrees of success and many of the promises of paid passage and waiting success proved false. Still, the Topeka Colored Citizen declared in 1879, “If blacks come here and starve, all well. It is better to starve to death in Kansas than to be shot and killed in the South.”
After the Blackdom post office closed, the money book was handed off to a nearby station. The book sat in the back office for decades until a savvy clerk contacted a historian with the Postal Service, who helped the document find a new home at the Postal Museum, years after its old home had vanished.
December 27, 2012
Friday, December 28: Gallery Talk with Remina Greenfield
Ai Weiwei had already developed a reputation as a rebellious artist, but after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan in which more than 5,000 children were killed, most due to the poor construction of school buildings, he became much more outspoken. He organized citizens’ investigations and made pieces like “Straight,” a pile of 38 tons of rebar, recovered and straightened from the wreckage of the earthquake. As part of the museum’s multi-level exhibition, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” Remina Greenfield will lead a discussion about the piece. Free. 12:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Hirshhorn.
Saturday, December 29: Lincoln’s Indian Legacy
Abraham Lincoln is remembered for many things, but lesser known is his political relationship with the Indians. Showing Saturday at the American Indian Museum, the film Canes of Power looks at 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, each a recipient of a silver-headed cane from the president. Learn about the objects that represented and continue to symbolize the Pueblos’ sovereignty and the ongoing importance of Lincoln’s commitment. Free. 12:30 p.m. American Indian Museum.
Sunday, December 30: Portrait Story Days: Andy Warhol
Both the sitter for and creator of multiple portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, Andy Warhol is at once am ubiquitous and enigmatic artist. With portraits of Albert Einstein, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jimmy Carter, Andy Warhol reinvented the religious icon, within a secular, pop art aesthetic. Learn about the man who was a legend in his own right, defining an entire artistic scene and continuing to inspire admiration years after his death in 1987. Free. 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. National Portrait Gallery.
And if you happen to have a herd of family members curious to explore all the Smithsonian has to offer, just download our specially created Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is also packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
September 28, 2011
For most curators, designing an exhibit is an exercise in fully educating oneself about a topic of professional interest. For Stephanie Zuni, creating her recent show was an exercise in getting to know her family. Zuni is the scholar behind the recently opened exhibition “Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century” currently on view at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum’s Heye Center in New York City.
When searching through archives for photographs for the show, Zuni came across pictures of her ancestors. A native of the Isleta Pueblo, in New Mexico, Zuni was attempting to select items that emphasized the transition that occurred in the community during the 1880s and 90s, when the tribe began losing land to the arriving railroad companies. “My grandfather was one of the leaders who went to Washington, DC when they were having the land dispute,” she says. “So in the photo, he was there, just camping out.”
Later, coming across another photo of a woman selling pottery at the pueblo train station, she knew something looked familiar. “I didn’t get to know my grandmother, but knowing that she was a potter, I could recognize that pottery in front of the train because we have that pot at home, with the same design,” she says. “Her face wasn’t showing, but I knew that had to be her.”
The new exhibition doesn’t just includes Zuni’s ancestors, but those of many Natives that still live at Isleta Pueblo, in New Mexico. “Time Exposures,” a three-part show that focuses on the enormous changes forced on the Isleta lifestyle at the start of the 20th century with the arrival of the railroad, features photography, film clips and artifacts such as kilts and pottery. In designing the exhibition, Zuni and others actively involved the community in the process. “We had a call for photographs, and we wanted people to have a part in this,” she says. “It was really a huge project for us, and it was a first for the Pueblo.”
The show covers both before and after 1881, when life in the community changed dramatically. At that time, the U.S. government allowed railroad companies to take land in the center of the Pueblo. “It really changed the way of life: crossing the railroad, and having to have more precaution over animals and their land,” says Zuni. Over time, the railroad spurred systematic changes in Isleta society. “There’s the encroachment of the new settlers, and the growth of nearby Albuquerque, and the introduction of schools and the Anglo-American economic system,” she says.
During this era, photography at the Pueblo was generally taken by outsiders. “A lot of these photographs were staged, and some of them were inappropriate, just not correct,” Zuni says. Some photos, for example, show traditional stone-throwing games with the wrong amount of stones. Many of the photos were used to convey stereotypical images of Pueblo life to tourists and people living far from New Mexico. “It’s kind of interesting to acknowledge that the photographer wasn’t always right, but that they do depict a huge portion of who we are in their eyes. These are their photographs, but we’re now telling the story,” says Zuni.
“Time Exposures” also explains the traditional cycle of the Isleta year through photography and other artifacts. “The beginning of the year is what we call our Night Fire, in December and January,” Zuni says. “Each of those events are named, and we have it depicted in the photo, and we have an interactive where you can press the button and you’ll hear the song and language and time that it reflects in the season.”
Deciding what information and which artifacts to include in the show was, at times, a sensitive process. Zuni worked with a committee of traditional Isleta leaders to make decisions during the design. “We went through a scanning process of which photographs were appropriate for people to understand who we are, as a people, and how we want those people on the outside to see us,” she says. This sort of community participation, though unusual for curating exhibitions in the Smithsonian, made possible the thorough detail and background that add such depth to the photographs on display. “The cultural committee was very involved, because of their traditional knowledge with this material,” she says.
Zuni and others hope that the traveling exhibition, which will eventually go on exhibition in a location closer to Isleta Pueblo after it closes next year in New York, will be of value to younger members of the community. “Seeing it set up, it is something that we are happy about, and something that I know will be there for future generations, whether its to find their lineage, or their kinship,” she says. “And maybe even finding their own grandparents in the photographs, as I did.”
“Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century” will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, through Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012.
June 26, 2010
When Roberto Martínez Sr. was five years old, around 1934, he would sit on his grandparents’ porch–five miles from his parents’ house and birthplace in Chacón, New Mexico–banging away at an imaginary guitar. He was imitating his uncle Flavio, an accomplished guitarist and singer and a regular performer at family functions. Another uncle, Ray, noticed him at it and constructed a faux guitar for him out of a rectangular, one-gallon gas can, a piece of board for the neck and few thin wires. It was his first “guitar,” but not his last. Not by a long shot.
Despite performing his farewell concert with Los Reyes de Albuquerque last December, Roberto Martínez Sr. will be making his fourth journey to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to perform with his Nuevo Mexicano mariachi group. They take the stage on Sunday. (In 2003, Martínez donated his entire collection of master recordings to Smithsonian Folkways.)
Roberto is 81 years old now, but he can’t get away from music. When I called his home in Albuquerque this week, he had just returned from playing for a senior center in the Sandia Mountains.
“You can’t keep him down,” his youngest son, 46-year-old Roberto Jr., said in an interview.
As a teenager, Roberto Sr. received his first actual guitar and idolized the mariachis and ranchero singers and stars of the Southwest. But he never played seriously until he was an adult, after his service in the Air Force, marrying Ramona Salazar and having his first child. But his first true guitar, a gift from Uncle Flavio, was with him wherever he went.
Roberto Sr.’s first foray into professional music came when the family moved to Denver and met Ramona’s uncle, Jesús Ulibarrí. The two men formed their own mariachi, Los Trobadores, in 1952 after discovering a mutual affinity for the guitar. It helped that they both knew how to play the same songs.
But Roberto Sr. began to notice the divisions between the Latino musicians and white musicians in Denver and how it mirrored those divisions in the community itself. Roberto Sr. recalls opening his copy of the Rocky Mountain News one day in 1957 to find a picture of a little Latino boy with a headline describing how the Denver chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let this boy carry the American flag in a school patriotism event, even though he was a citizen of the United States.
Along with other Denver-area musicians, Roberto and Jesús joined Denver radio pioneer Francisco “Paco” Sanchez in protesting the event and campaigning for civil rights.
In 1960, Roberto Sr. moved the family back to New Mexico for health reasons, settling in Albuquerque. Two years later, along with his friends Ray Flores, Miguel Archibeque, George Benavides and Isidro Chavez, Roberto Sr. formed Los Reyes de Albuquerque (The Kings of Albuquerque). Roberto Sr. and Ray Flores are the only members of the original group still living.
The two touchstones of Los Reyes in their nearly 50 years performing, have been civil rights and cultural history.
Soon after moving to Albuquerque, Roberto Sr. realized that most Latino musicians weren’t paid. They were working entirely for gratuity.
“When I formed Los Reyes, one thing that we did was we made a promise not to degrade ourselves by working for tips,” he says. “We didn’t get many jobs for a long time. But … we didn’t charge much but we always got paid.”
The Reyes also decided that they would not be cheap entertainment. They play to educate.
“I don’t mean that our audiences are dumb or anything,” Roberto Sr. says. “But I mean to inform them so that when they left, they didn’t just listen to a lot of songs … we impart on them a little bit of our culture. That’s been one of our biggest goals to promote, perpetuate and preserve the music of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.”
Two of Los Reyes’ most successful corridos (ballads) were El Corrido de Río Arriba–a tribute to land-grant activistm protesting the seizure of lands held by communities and private individuals in New Mexico and a plea for justice–and El Corrido de Daniel Fernández–honoring a Latino soldier from New Mexico who sacrificed himself for his fellow soldiers by throwing himself on an enemy grenade in Vietnam.
Their music is a reflection of the rich cultural history of Nuevo Mexicanos.
“We’re one of the United States, but we were part of Mexico and before that we were part of Spain for a couple centuries. Add to that the first people that were out here, the Pueblo Indians,” said Roberto Jr., who joined Los Reyes in 1992, at which point included his brother, Lorenzo. “We have all of that in us. In our bloodlines. In our culture. In our language. We speak English, but we speak Spanish too and we’re not going to stop.
“Artists and musicians tend not to care about borders or political disputes. If we like something, we put it in our music. ‘Oh that Irish song? We’re gonna take some of that. That Spanish tune? We’re gonna have some of that. That Pueblo rhythm? We’re gonna put that in there.’ And it shows in the music.”
In the 50s and 60s, Latino musical acts didn’t have a chance with the white-owned record companies. Lots of groups from Albuquerque would change their names from Spanish to gain the attention of the major record labels, to survive. “I wasn’t about to do that,” Roberto Sr. recalls.
Roberto Sr. remembers a conversation with his daughter Debbie “La Chicanita” Martínez when she was gaining her fame as a singer. “I threw it at her, ‘well mijita, you might have a hard time getting a place with La Chicanita.’ And she stood her ground and she said ‘no, no. I am La Chicanita and I want to have that on the label.’ It didn’t make any difference. It sold.”
Not every Hispanic group could pull off such a feat. But Debbie, who died of cancer in 2007, had a voice too big for any group act, a voice that would make her a regional star.
Always an advocate for the underdog and for civil rights, Roberto Sr. opened Minority Owned Record Enterprises, operating out of his home. He wanted to have a free hand in the music he was creating and to help other groups have the same creative freedom.
“He wanted to have an outlet for local Hispanic people to put their music out,” Roberto Jr. said. “Mostly it was a conduit for Los Reyes, but it was also for my sisters, for Debbie, and for the music of my brother.”
Much of Roberto Sr.’s original masters were lost in 1987. The MORE archives, which included many unreleased original recordings, had been located in a closet down the hall from the Martínez family den. One morning, Roberto Sr., in a rush to make it to a children’s day-care facility for a performance, forgot to take out the ashes from the fireplace in the den. Ramona smelled smoke. Thinking it was smoke backed up from the fireplace she turned on a fan. Before she knew it, the entire den was in flames. She rushed out of the house and called 9-1-1. By the time the fire department arrived, the house was nearly completely ruined and much of Roberto Sr.’s collection of original MORE recordings was lost.
Though much of the original material was lost forever, Roberto Sr. managed to rebuild his collection through friends and family. The fire was one impetus for Roberto Sr.’s decision to donate the reconstructed collection to the Smithsonian in 2003. The decision was also spurred by his uncertainty of how he might divide up the collection among his children and his confidence in the Smithsonian.
“I know that my records will be well taken care of there,” he said.
Roberto Sr. was recently diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer. But he says he’s not “battling” it yet and that he feels “perfectly fine.” Nevertheless, he has decided that soon he will finally put Los Reyes to rest. But, he’s not worried about Los Reyes fading away. It will live on, he says, through all the material that has been left behind.
Los Reyes will also live on through Roberto Sr.’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all the musicians that made their start with the band. Roberto Sr.’s mission with Los Reyes has always been to support and showcase the younger generation of musicians, so much so that, now, Roberto Sr. describes Los Reyes as a volunteer organization.
At one point or another, Roberto Sr.’s children were all either a part of Los Reyes or performed with the group. On Sunday, Sheila Martínez, Debbie’s daughter and Roberto Sr.’s granddaughter, will be performing with Los Reyes. Lorenzo Martínez’s son, Larry, plays with Los Reyes as well, but will not be performing on Sunday. Roberto Sr.’s great-grandchildren are also musicians. Tino, 14, and Ramon, 9, are already quite proficient in the saxophone and guitar, respectively.
“It’s always great to still be able to play with my dad when we can because we want to keep him around as long as we can and keep making music,” Roberto Jr. said. “But, regardless, we’ll always do that. We’ll play music. We have to do it.”
Los Reyes de Albuquerque is performing at 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 27, at El Salon de Mexico on the Folklife Festival grounds on the Mall. Members of Los Reyes performing include: Tamarah Lucero and Sheila Martínez on violín, Jose “Chino” Carrillo on guitarron, Antonio “Tony” Orduno on guitar and Roberto Martínez Sr. on vihuela. They will be performing traditional music from Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.