Blackdom in the Borderlands
Significance of the Afro-Frontier (1903-1929)
By Dr. Timothy E. Nelson, historian and artist
With widespread reporting on racial disparity in the United States in 2020 has come a renewed interest in a New Mexico site not often discussed: Blackdom, an all-Black settlement in the southeastern corner of the state, founded in 1903 and occupied until the 1920s.
Historically, conversations about Black people project the intentions of others and obscure deep analysis of Black folks. As a society in the post-Obama era, we must ask new questions about Black people and reframe histories we thought we knew. The summer of 2020 resembled the summer of 1919, a time referred to as Red Summer—a pandemic was raging, Russia was in the news, and violence against Black bodies was both state-sponsored and vigilante-inspired. One might argue that history repeated itself.
As the state of New Mexico enters its second century and grapples with the histories that came before, this essay about Blackdom, New Mexico, provides a model; as modern historians do not subscribe to the idea of “history repeating itself,” we must instead focus on relearning and reimagining our preconceived notions of success, failure, and equality.
The most common narrative about Blackdom is that its original homesteaders established their own town in order to escape the oppression of American white supremacy, but found farming in the arid and acrid Permian Basin challenging, and soon abandoned their efforts.
Recently published scholarship by historian Dr. Timothy E. Nelson, however, suggests Black people intentionally used the legal and social system of separate-but-equal to their advantage. Travel, then, to what Dr. Nelson refers to as the Afro-Frontier—immerse in a new history of the prairie. Rather than a story of ultimate failure, you will read a story featuring the ingenuity of a community that made use of a corporate veil to achieve sovereignty in the chaos of the borderlands at the turn of the twentieth century.
What appears today to be a physical ghost town is, in fact, a testament to Black ingenuity in the face of immense hardship; rather than a story of agricultural failure, Blackdom is a story of generational economic success.
In the early 1900s, the North American continental interior hosted two different centuries-long global colonization schemes. The Pecos Valley region’s economic surge underwent the largest infrastructure projects in the world at the time and brought exploitation of people and land. African descendants under the conditions of American Blackness (Black people) sought opportunity in the colonization collision at Mexico’s northern frontier and the United States’ western frontier. Through the homestead process in the southeastern section of the New Mexico Territory, Black people became colonizers. After the discovery of oil in New Mexico, they fully participated in the bonanza and received royalties that extended through the post-World War II era. In this essay, we explore an intersection of African descendants in diaspora, who quarantined themselves to achieve the goals of their ancestral strivings.
Blackdom, New Mexico, was an Afrocentric microcosm of hegemonic society and the result of colonization efforts that spanned over four centuries. The first major global colonization scheme is familiarized by the stories of Christopher Columbus. In the late 1400s, during the exploitation of Indigenous peoples and their lands, some Africans benefited from the spoils of war to include landlordship. The second major colonization effort began in the late 1500s, when a new set of European colonizers lurched westward into Indigenous spaces. Launched from the European continent, Africans from the western and northern parts of their homeland sought opportunistic employment through military service with the colonizing forces. African soldiers helped seize what became Mexico on the North American continent.
In the 1800s, the two sets of colonizers converged amidst the chaos of Mexico’s northern frontier, in all-Black military units. Buffalo Soldiers engaged a Spanish-speaking borderland as an occupying force and border patrol. By 1900, African descendants in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands carved out spaces to fully develop an Afro-Frontier. Significant in the trajectory of African descendant peoples in diaspora, Blackdom embodied a declaration of sovereignty: separate-but-equal.
In September of 1903, thirteen Black men signed the Blackdom Townsite Company’s articles of incorporation and were able to function as businessmen first, rather than citizens of a certain race, which further protected them from pervasive racism. However, Blackdom’s grand opening in May of 1904 fell short of expectations, in part due to the lack of interest to follow through on the homestead process on desert prairies.
The prospect for a town languished until the 1909 Homestead Enlargement Act. Partitioning themselves at the contested intersection of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, Black people who were diverse in age, character, and capacity unified to consciously engage in Afrotopia. New Mexico was on the verge of statehood, and an incorporated all-Black town had the potential to produce generational wealth.
On the eve of New Mexico’s 1912 incorporation as a state of the union, Blackdom was revived and functioning as a thriving unincorporated town until May of 1920. Particularly after statehood, Blackdomites found opportunity behind the corporate veil of their municipality. Newly discovered documents have revealed that Blackdom’s third decade, during the Roaring Twenties, included the advent of Blackdom Oil Company. In May of 1920, Francis (Frank) Marion Boyer and his wife Ella (McGruder) Boyer filed the official plat for the Town of Blackdom, which documented the surveyed location and details about the terrain. In the State of New Mexico, on Mescalero Apache Reservation land with Chaves County, Black- domites mapped a township of blocks, streets, and alleys in a grid pattern with a Townsquare in the center. Once officially incorporated, the county, state, and federal authorities were able to assess property values and taxes.
A tricultural (Indigenous, Spanish, White) understanding of New Mexico precludes the public acknowledgement of Black folks striving—and thriving. For example, Blackdomites were at the vanguard of regional oil market forces without the impositions of a White-dominated society. Yet, few people in New Mexico have been exposed to this history.
On biblically dry desert prairies, Black people realized their Afrotopic ambitions because they incorporated and made their living a business. The Blackdom Townsite Company was an economic vehicle to drive Blackdomite success in the creation of generational wealth. When the Blackdom experiment began in the Territory of New Mexico, federal laws and jurisdictions superseded any laws or local ordinances and made Jim Crow law in the territory hard to enforce. Until statehood, Blackdomites had no higher authority than God. The territory Jim Crow-law loophole afforded Black people full authority to realize their dreams. The incorporation of the Blackdom Townsite after statehood was for the protection of their sovereignty on government “promised land.”
1903-1909: The Lost Years
Blackdom’s early years were lost to “the struggle.” Over time, Blackdomites mitigated the initial hardships of homesteading by providing apprenticeship programs and host families to new immigrants. As newcomers, Blackdomites indulged in their duality as thinkers and doers; they brought together their experiences of religious teachings, military service, and Prince Hall Freemasonry that amalgamated into an intentional intersectional sovereign Blackness. During Blackdom’s lost years, the idea of building a town in the Pecos River Valley was far-fetched, akin to believing in miracles. As Blackdomite homesteaders, they forged bonds working on their own land, in church, and masonic lodges, as all of them were required to submit to divine laws of sowing and reaping declared in the articles of incorporation of the Blackdom Townsite Co.
In the first wave of homesteaders, Crutcher Eubank, born and raised in the South under the institution of slavery, had witnessed its demise after the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). As a young man, Crutcher also watched the rise of white supremacy and suffered the conditions of American Blackness. Moreover, in 1896, The Supreme Court decided that Black people were legally allowed to be separate. In his adult life, Crutcher saw the end of American Reconstruction and the beginnings of modern American racism; and yet, he and his family decided to migrate into the frontier, where there was more insecurity and civil mayhem. The Eubank family witnessed chaos throughout the nineteenth century, and chose Afrotopia at the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1905, during America’s racial nadir, Crutcher and the Eubank family migrated to the New Mexico Territory from Kentucky. They settled in Southeastern New Mexico in the small, unincorporated community of Blackdom, where Crutcher began the family homestead patent on October 9, 1906, and he became the pastor of Blackdom’s first church. Pastor Eubank not only preached about faith; he chose to live his faith by homesteading on New Mexico’s desert prairies. By faith, he started planting kaffir corn in the winter, a warm-weather plant. This corn variety had slow early growth and wasn’t ideal to plant in a cold winter ground. Crutcher quickly learned that if planted too early, late replanting was needed, which made his leap of faith inefficient—even worse, if a sufficient stand was secured in the first planting, the growth of the young plants would grow slowly, weeds aggressively grew, and more cultivation was needed.
The Eubank family was faithful, consistent and hard-working, but they sowed seeds in the right place at the wrong time and reaped little harvest for their toil. Water was hard to access, and planting mishaps could prove financially ruinous. In a completely new climate than they were used to, they were forced to pivot and transition into new agricultural cycles. Specifically, they needed to adjust to the biblical drought conditions. They adjusted by learning the vagaries of irrigating desert land to subsist. In their “Promised Land,” the Eubank family was on a steep learning curve.
Crutcher, as head of the family, found side hustles to fund the homestead. Typical of Blackdomite society, he often had to leave his family on the unimproved homestead to raise capital working as a laborer in nearby cities.
When they first settled in Chaves County, Crutcher and his family were hosted by the Boyer family. Frank Boyer was a minister, a former Buffalo Soldier, a freemason, and served as the first Blackdom Townsite Company president. Crutcher was a minister and, like Frank, part of a religiously inspired homesteader class. The Eubank family endured with the help of the Boyers, who oriented them to the divine laws of the region and homestead process.
The homestead process was complete once a homesteader established residence, built a home, and farmed for three years to be eligible to “prove up” a homestead. According to Crutcher’s homestead proof, he built a modest home worth about $250 ($7,000 today), complete with a porch. Crutcher leveraged most of his capacity and capital in proving up his land with a water well cased up with a mechanical pump worth $350 ($9,000). With the help of family labor and community support, Crutcher fenced 160 acres with barbed wire worth about $125 ($3,000).
In 1907, Crutcher broke ground on two acres of his land, which yielded little that year. In the 1908 growing season, he planted kaffir corn on another two acres, bringing the total farming acreage up to four. By 1909, he broke ground on another two acres, planting corn, beans, potatoes, and other garden products over the six acres. In 1910, Crutcher did not break new ground to farm; he replanted on the acreage of previous years. Crutcher and the region were relieved as drought conditions ended in 1911.
The Eubank family faced a grueling six years to complete a family homestead patent. To this day, the Eubank family still holds the largest amount of land connected to the original Blackdomite society commons (homesteads within a day’s walk of Blackdom’s Townsquare).
Pastor Crutcher Eubank’s notion of God’s sovereignty manifested into landlordship. Crutcher’s faith helped transform sandy loam—a mixture of silt, sand, and clay—into fertile farmland to secure the futures of his wife and eleven children. He completed the patent process on November 28, 1911, on the eve of New Mexico’s statehood.
1909-1919: The Revival
The Enlargement Act, signed February 19, 1909, began a new era of tremendous growth in land ownership that positioned Blackdomites to enter boom times a decade later. In revival, people who endured harsh, dry growing seasons got reprieve when the laws of the land changed. Passage of the Enlargement Act was the first of many new U.S. colonization tactics to encourage homesteader occupation of confiscated Indigenous desert land in Mexico’s northern frontier.
Bitter border battles exploded into the Mexican Revolution (c. 1910)—this was the backdrop of Blackdom’s ascendence. In the forefront, New Mexico statehood became militarily strategic as Pancho Villa’s raids gained steam and border-dwellers began to view his military campaigns favorably on both sides of the newly erected border. The Enlargement Act sparked Blackdom’s revival by loosening restrictions on who could own land, and increased allotments from 160 acres to 320 acres (a halfsquare mile). Consequently, more Blackdomite women joined the homestead class.
One of the first women to benefit from women’s ascendance in Blackdom was homesteader Ella Boyer, née McGruder. She had agreed to marry Frank Boyer when they were in Georgia during the 1890s; at the time, Frank attended Atlanta Baptist College (Morehouse College today) while Ella attended the Haines Institute. Founded by Miss Lucy Laney, Ella’s school for nurses was where she honed her midwifery skills. Frank was gainfully employed at the Atlanta Constitution as a proofreader when they began their family.
After the Boyers’ 1900 migration to the New Mexico Territory, by 1910, the Boyer household swelled to include ten children. Ella’s life revolved around children, as she “officiated so many births there were too many to count,” according to a 1947 interview reported in the Las Cruces Sun-News. She also held office in the Negro Order of Eastern Star, a Masonic auxiliary organization. In 1909, she became one of the first women to participate in and benefit from Blackdom’s revival. According to her homestead records, she spent about $3,000 ($80,000 today) to prove up her land—but with little success. After numerous extensions, Ella successfully “proved up” her homestead and earned her final patent in December of 1918, on the eve of Blackdom’s boom time. North and adjacent to what would become Blackdom Townsquare’s 40 acres, Ella owned 160 acres.
Approximately 300 Blackdomites (men, women and children) had an insatiable appetite for land ownership, and they absorbed as much as they were legally allowed. John Boyer, Frank Boyer’s older brother, took swift action to take advantage of the Homestead Enlargement Act, which helped him double the size of his land to 320 acres. He had endured a childhood on a plantation under the institution of slavery in Georgia. By 1910, at the age of 54, John reached sovereignty and was in the midst of growing generational wealth via a homestead patent in a municipality he helped build.
John’s Afrotopic dreams materialized with his first land patent on August 16, 1907, when he became the first Boyer to complete a homestead process in Blackdom’s commons. He also owned a home in Roswell, New Mexico, on South Main Street with his wife, Pinkie, and their three sons: Berry (18), Ethon (15) and Porter (14), according to the 1910 Census.
The Boyer family was one of the first multi-generational families of homesteaders in Blackdom. John Boyer’s significant thriving was due in part to being from the Boyer family, which collectively owned over 5 square miles. As an example of the efficiency of their familial homestead system, Frank Boyer and Daniel Keys (who was married to Frank’s twin sister, Francis) started their process on the same day in 1905; they completed their homestead patents on the same day as well, on June 11, 1908. Frank and Daniel owned a contiguous 320 acres near the Pecos River in Dexter, New Mexico.
Further, the Enlargement Act allowed for assignee privileges, which meant Frank was allowed to file for a land patent using the rights of the two women, Mattie Moore and Pernecia Russel, using their ex-husbands’ soldier benefits. Although Daniel Keys did not pursue a new homestead during Blackdom’s revival, Frank began a homestead patent for the 40 acres for Blackdom’s Townsquare with help from Mattie and Pernecia.
At a time of great progress and celebration, on December 7, 1911, the Pecos Valley News reported on a “Negro Thankgiving:”
The Blackdom population has imbibed the spirit of the valley time and have a Booster’s club. This club gave a banquet Thanksgiving evening. Blackdom is the negro town of the Pecos Valley, eighteen miles east [sic] of Roswell. Its citizens and officials are composed entirely of the colored people. Francis [Frank] Boyer was the toastmaster of the evening.
Blackdomites publicly displayed their success. According to the article, William Young, who completed his homestead in July of 1911, discussed “immigration.” In a formal setting with musical interludes between speakers, more Blackdomites spoke about the business of Afrotopia. James Eubank answered the toast with an update on the school system, followed by Daniel Keys’s lecture on “What We Produce.” Fellow resident Wesley Williams answered the toast with a brief synopsis of the real estate market; indeed, by the time New Mexico was granted statehood on January 6, 1912, the Afro-Frontier town had developed into an ordered society.
Wesley finalized his first homestead on October 15, 1914, when the Blackdom homestead class increased exponentially. Thriving in revival, Blackdomites employed the skills of Harold Coleman, a journalist from back east, to market the town’s success to entice a new round of investment. From January 1913 through December of 1914, Blackdomites marketed their successful Afrotopia in The Crisis magazine, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The publication was most known for engaging the intellect of Black people—and for its executive editor, W.E.B. Du Bois.
At the top the advertisement, in large bold letters, it read:
“WANTED”: 500 Negro families (farmers preferred) to settle on FREE Government Lands in Chaves County, New Mexico. Blackdom is a Negro Colony. Fertile soil, ideal climate. No “Jim Crow” Laws. For information write JAS. Harold Coleman, Blackdom, New Mexico.
The refined homestead process required a certain malleability to the steep learning curve of transforming drought-ridden desert prairies into generational wealth. In revival, Blackdomites were more discerning of who invested in the town. The advertisement’s emphasis on farmers was a signal that there would be a seedtime and harvest time, which required newcomers to be patient, maintain capacity for loss, and focus on rural adaptability.
1919-1929: Boom Times
Blackdom was a town that enforced temperance and shortly after the announcement of Blackdom oil, the Blackdom faithful began a new exodus outward and new leadership came in. Blackdom’s boom time began and ended in the Roaring Twenties, when the town’s economy shifted from agriculture to oil exploration.
On December 31, 1919, the Roswell Daily Record reported the incorporation of the Blackdom Oil Company. Blackdomites reportedly had land holdings of 10,000 acres. The new age in Blackdom ushered in a host of new leaders including Blackdomite men who returned from World War I and an infamous bootlegging madam named Mittie Moore. On February 25, 1922, Mittie completed her homestead proving documents for a whole square mile on the south side of Blackdom commons.
With this new source of income—royalties from oil wells—Frank and Ella Boyer, Daniel Keys, and other townspeople were no longer obligated to remain on the land on which they toiled and began a new Afrotopia in Vado, New Mexico. Frank frequently traveled back to Blackdom and Roswell to visit family, attend masonic meetings, and to pick up his royalty checks. Blackdom’s church was built during the height of Blackdom’s revival in 1915. In the summer of 1922, Blackdomites sold the church house to First United Methodist Church of Cottonwood, 15 miles south of Blackdom. By then, Blackdomites had established a church in Roswell.
As a town, Blackdom slowly declined in population as Blackdomite families leased their land to oil exploration companies. The business of Blackdom moved to Roswell, and Blackdom’s Townsquare became a ceremonial place to celebrate major events like Juneteenth.
On October 24, 1929, when world economic markets crashed, Blackdom’s fate as a town was sealed. The town suffocated in the Great Depression and blew away in the wind of the Dust Bowl. The economic collapse ended the ability of Blackdomites to muster in the town square. According to Frank Boyer, two years before his passing in 1949, he confirmed that oil royalties persisted into the late 1940s and beyond.
Dr. Timothy E. Nelson’s multi-faceted work concerns racism, ambition, and the search for opportunity. His 2015 PhD dissertation, The Significance of the Afro-Frontier, reveals these themes. Dr. Nelson was born in South Central LA, raised in Compton, in the wake of the 1990s race and class-based conflict with the LAPD. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas at El Paso. Find more at BlackdomThesis.com.