Before the Twentieth Century1

Randolph Stakeman

One way to look at African and African American migration in New Mexico is to see it as the unintended consequence of greater events. Human migration has been part of human existence from the beginning. It is characteristically comprised of short movements of individuals or groups up to a small band. Even if the long term effect is to relocate many people it is not like a cattle stampede in which many people move together at the same time unless it is a forced migration. Forced migrations come about when there are ecological disasters or human intervention in the normal migration patterns. The slave trade, as an example, forced many people to move according to its dictates from Africa to the Middle East or the Americas. A forced migration like the slave trade had many ancillary and unforeseen effects including miscegenation, freedmen, slave revolts and runaways.

Slaves in Africa2

These by-products of the slave system were instrumental in the dangerous exploration of new lands by the European slave powers and their surrogates. Africans and African mestizos were the most expendable and served as the pioneer edge of European exploration into what became the United States Western region. By accepting this role black people were able to avoid the constraints of the slave system and build a modicum of independence for themselves though at a great cost. The outcastes of the slave system became the explorers who dotted the southwest at first under Spanish then Mexican imprimatur.

Portrait of Estevanico3

For example the guide who was the first non-native American to explore the New Mexico region as part of a sixteenth century Spanish expedition was a Moroccan African named Estevan. He scouted for the 1539 Fray Marcos de Niza expedition into Northern New Spain in the Sonora desert. He was also one of the first martyrs of European exploration (probably unwillingly) when he was killed for his efforts by a Native American group. Subsequent sixteenth century expeditions followed Estevan's route and contained black or mixed race members some of whom deserted to live in what is now New Mexico.4 As Mexican settlers moved into the region in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, Mexican Afro-mestizos comprised part of the early settler communities in the Southwest. Historian Quintard Taylor quotes Father Estevan de Perea as characterizing most of New Mexico's non-Native Americans as "mestizos, mulattoes and zambohijos [children of Native American fathers and mestizos, mulattoes or blacks.]" 5

Slaves in Repose6

The economic dictates of the agriculture for which African slaves were needed in the U.S. kept them in the U.S. South. They moved mainly from the Old South of Virginia and the Carolinas to the New South of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana as the slave economy changed and grew. Once the American Civil War literally unshackled them from the slave system the possibility of movement began to take shape. The debt peonage system which succeeded slavery in the South kept most of the slaves in that region. At the time of the country's founding 91% of the African American population lived in the South. At the beginning of the Civil War that number was still 92%. While it fell slightly at the end of the war it did not slip below 90% until the turn of the 20th century. The end of slavery did however allow the migration patterns of African Americans to return to a more natural pattern for an intrepid few. The 1880's and 90's saw the movement of some African Americans to the Midwest and the west in what was called "The Great Migration."

There was minimal, if any, settlement in New Mexico by African Americans during the first half of the nineteenth century. The 1860 census shows only 85 African Americans counted in New Mexico. Another analysis found 53 blacks and 82 mulattoes in that year. Nobody knows how many of these people were slaves but most of slaves came when slave owners, principally army officers, brought their "property" into the territory. New Mexico's Spanish and Mexican roots had built a supply of peons to provide labor and so African American slavery never became widespread. 7 The 1870 federal census lists only 172 African Americans living in New Mexico. That number jumped to over 1,000 in 1880 and almost 2,000 in 1890. Most of that increase were black soldiers who were sent to the West by the government. They were the so-called "Buffalo soldiers." Over 200,000 black troops had served in the Union army during the Civil War, about 10% of all troops. The black units were reorganized in 1869 to become the 9th and 10th cavalry units as well as the 24th and 25th infantry units of the army. In the last half of the nineteenth century several of these black units were dispatched to the West to protect settlers from Native American raids. Several of these regiments were stationed in New Mexico at times and they made up the majority of African Americans in the territory. 8

Placque in Albuquerque Old Town Plaza9

There have been black residents in Albuquerque from the beginning. When Old Albuquerque was founded in 1706 five of the twenty-two founding heads of household were black or mulatto. Descendants of the founders and other black and mixed race immigrants have lived in Albuquerque ever since then. A 1750 census of Albuquerque listed 200 Native Americans and 500 others of whom some 50 were "mulattoes". A later 1790 census only lists 5 mulattoes which historian Maisha Baton takes as a sign of their absorption into the community rather than their absence from it. Albuquerque remained a small and isolated community throughout the nineteenth century until the advent of the Santa Fe railroad which linked New Mexico to the rest of the country.10

Old Steam Engine11

Present day Albuquerque was a product of the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad's expansion west. The company started in 1868 as a small railroad to link two Kansas towns Atcheson and Topeka but soon turned its attention to expanding westward. By 1872 it had reached Dodge City, Kansas and by 1878 Trinidad, Colorado. In 1879 they made an agreement with two other rail lines to acquire the right away to reach all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Habitually short of capital, when they finally entered the New Mexico territory near Las Vegas, New Mexico, they asked the town for $10,000, a land grant and a free right of way. When the town did not provide any of these it laid track a mile outside of town in effect bypassing it. They determined that the best route to lay new track was some eighteen miles south of Santa Fe and did so. Only concessions and a bond issue from the town persuaded the railroad to build a spur line into Santa Fe. As they continued their push into the middle Rio Grande Valley the company first approached the town of Bernalillo. When a large landowner there offered them land at $425 an acre, they quickly left as they were expecting to pay $2 or $3 per acre. 12

Thus by the time they reached Albuquerque a bit to the south, they had already effectively demonstrated their willingness to bypass towns that didn't accede to their demands and their desire to lay track in the most advantageous geographical areas for it. Their surveyors determined that the shortest route to lay track was not through Albuquerque itself which was nestled in a bend in the river Rio Grande, but a mile and a half east. A few prominent Albuquerque citizens anxious to have the railroad turned land speculators and bought up the land around the proposed route. They agreed to deed the land to the railroad for $1 an acre in exchange for 50% of the price when the railroad company would later sell it at a greatly inflated price to commercial developers once the railroad came through. In April, 1880 the train reached what would become New Albuquerque with a great celebration to mark its arrival. 13

There were only 16 African Americans listed in that first census of New Albuquerque later that summer. Most of these were listed as cooks and domestics. Only one black family was listed among them.


The census listings rarely tell the whole story of black ambitions and accomplishments. One man listed as a "cook" in the 1880 census was the proprietor of a business, the New Mexico Novelty Store, by 1883. The business lasted until 1896. A retired miller listed in the 1880 census was the proprietor of a rooming house in 1883. There were 3 black children in the Albuquerque schools in 1884 and that number peaked at 34 before the end of the century. 15

School Children16

By 1885 the population had grown to the point where we can begin to see the emergence of the social trappings of a community. Historian Bernice Rebord writes that African Americans "had a social life patterned after the town's." Two African American women organized an African Drama Club, an African American band performed concerts in front of two of the town's major hotels and the town's skating rink was reserved for African Americans on certain days. An African American Methodist mission was organized in 1882 but its first facility was not able to accommodate its congregation. The church at first therefore rented space in other buildings for its weekly services.

Colored Methodist Mission17

It was reorganized as the Colored Methodist Mission and the township of Albuquerque donated land for it in 1883. The ladies of the mission held socials probably to raise money to build a church building. They were successful and eventually a new brick building opened in 1892 at Coal Avenue and Third Street in Albuquerque. 18

There are only scattered clues about what life was like for the burgeoning African American population in Albuquerque before the turn of the twentieth century. Some of those clues are from photographs from the period. A photograph from 1884 of the first automobile to arrive in Albuquerque shows three nattily dressed black men in the background.

Albuquerue's First Automobile19

Others show African American men at work. We can see one working as the desk clerk for the white businessman's club in Albuquerque in 1895.

African American Desk Clerk20

We can see another working as a railroad porter sometime during the 1890's.

African American Railroad Porter21

These are indicative of the occupations available to African Americans at the turn of the century. Most, particularly the women, could work as domestics for the white population or the men as porters and other employees of the railroad. Although there were a few who could carve out different livelihoods for themselves, these were the two options the white economic system set as lynchpins for the economic life of Albuquerque African Americans as the twentieth century began. As we shall see African Americans tried to surmount these options whenever they could.

  1. Banner photo is a detail from the 1898 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Albuquerque. The Black circles are residences of African Americans. Universisty of New Mexico Library.
  2. 19th century engraving
  3. Estavanico painting by Granger Esteban-fl-1527-39-granger.html
  4. Quintard Taylor, "African Americans in the Enchanted State: Black History in New Mexico 1539-1900," in History of Hope: The African American Experience in New Mexico, edited by Tom Lark, p 1.
  5. Quintard Taylor, "African Americans in the Enchanted State: Black History in New Mexico 1539-1900,"x in History of Hope: The African American Experience in New Mexico, edited by Tom Lark, p 2.
  6. Slaves in America -us/
  7. Mark Stegmaier, "A Law That Would Make Caligula Blush?" in Bruce Glasrud, African Americans in New Mexico, ebook location 1089.
  8. Monroe L. Billington, "Civilians and Black Soldiers in New Mexico Territory 1866 -- 1900," in Bruce Glasrud, African Americans in New Mexico, ebook location 1947.
  9. Albuquerque Historic Marker
  10. Maisha Baton, Do Remember Me 2: Black Seniors of Albuquerque and Western New Mexico, Privately printed, 2004, pp. 4-5.
  11. Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Locomotive 35
  12. Marc Simmons, Albuquerque: A Narrative History, 1982 University of New Mexico Press, pp. 212-221 passim.
  13. Marc Simmons, Albuquerque: A Narrative History, 1982 University of New Mexico Press, pp. 212-221 passim.
  14. Manuscript 1880 Census, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Library
  15. John Joseph Ellis, "Albuquerque's Black Entrepreneurs 1880-1933," paper submitted for American Urban History 362, October 11, 1976, pp. 3-4 Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Library.
  16. Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Library, William Cobb Memorial Photography Collection 000-119-0424.
  17. Picture from Barbara Richardson, Black Pioneers p. 29.
  18. Bernice Ann Rebord, "A Social History of Albuquerque, 1880 -- 1885," Master's thesis, University of New Mexico , Department of History, 1947 pp 65-66, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Library; and Marianne Hanson,
  19. Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Library, William Cobb Memorial Photography Collection 000-119-0747.
  20. Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Library, William Cobb Memorial Photography Collection 000-119-0762.
  21. Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Library, William Cobb Memorial Photography Collection 000-119-0390.