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.
November 14, 2012
If your plans for Thanksgiving next week include grumpy uncles and rowdy cousins, then the Smithsonian may just be the catch-all you need to keep everyone happy. We’ll be highlighting a few items worthy of your out-of-town crew over the next week to help you prepare for a flawless family visit.
First up, the iconic symbol of the West: the Conestoga Wagon. Not simply a “covered” wagon, this is the vehicle borne out of the Pennsylvania Dutch’s craft tradition and specially designed for the first half of the cross-country journey over mountainous terrain. Where today we have the 18-wheeler, the Conestoga wagon once ruled the road, measuring around 18 feet long and 21 feet tall and capable of hauling up to five tons of cargo.
“The Conestoga was like the king of the road,” says curator Roger White. “It was the biggest, heaviest, prettiest and most ideally shaped wagon for the purpose.” The unique curve made it perfect for transporting large loads over topsy-turvey topography and its signature blue body and red trim set it apart on the road. During the early 1800s, the wagons were critical in bringing manufactured goods west and raw goods, including flour, whiskey and tobacco back east. Replacing canal and steamboat travel, wagons rode the newly constructed national roads from Baltimore to Wheeling and Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
“There were thousands of wagons on these roads and not all of them were Conestogas. But the Conestoga was the wagon of choice; it was simply the best suited to the conditions,” says White.
White says Conestogas developed a subculture within American life, particularly among drivers of the vehicles, called wagoners. “The wagoners themselves were pretty colorful,” says White. “They were an outdoor bunch, they were pretty rough and robust, living outdoors as they did.” Each wagoner had his favorite inn or tavern and they all shared a set of songs to help pass the time.
After being in storage for ten years, the wagon is now one of the few remaining models on view. Visitors can stop by a take in this piece of Americana in the first-floor lobby until January 2, 2013.
And for visitors heading into town for the holidays, don’t forget to download our Visitors Guide and Tours app. We’ve packed it with specialty tours, must-see exhibitions, museum floor plans and custom postcards. Get it on Google Play and in the Apple Store for just 99 cents.