Exhibit explores black history in New Mexico

This story first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It can be viewed here.


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of New Mexico’s many calling cards, apart from green chile and hot air balloons, is its diversity. It’s one of only four states with a non-Hispanic white population of less than 50 percent.

But the history of the black community in New Mexico is still largely untold. A new exhibit at the African American Performing Arts Center aims to change that.

Annette Caine, executive director of the African American Performing Arts Center, said the exhibit – “African Heritage From Benin to Juneteenth” – will have a local touch as well.

“We have added the black artists guild, and they have their work that is also combined,” she said. “That is why we call it “From Benin to Juneteenth,” because it allows them to (contribute) their work, and these are all African-American artists.”

The artists from the guild are all local.

The exhibit explores the history of the black community, its origins and the path African-Americans took to get to the U.S. It also displays artifacts contributed by the African American Artists Guild, such as pottery and quilts, whose creation is inspired by that heritage and history.

Despite New Mexico’s diversity, the black population is small – 3.4 percent in 2015 for Bernalillo County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Two members of the state Legislature – Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, and Democratic Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque – are its only African-American members.

“Other than that, we don’t really have any other voice up in Santa Fe,” Caine said.

While the exhibit allows non-blacks in Albuquerque to learn about a different culture and demographic history, Caine said, there is even more importance in its potential to unite the black community around its complex history in the state.

That history includes the story of Blackdom, a small town near Roswell that was the first African-American community in the New Mexico Territory, and Cathay Williams, a black woman who made herself resemble a man to serve in the military in the 1800s.

It’s little-known stories like these – as much a part of the state’s fabric as its pueblos, Route 66 and nuclear experiments – that Caine hopes attendees take stock of.

“Those are stories that we didn’t know about,” she said. “Even for some of us that are living here, we’re still learning some of the history.”

“It’s something that’s not really taught in schools. If we at the Performing Arts Center don’t continue it in our galleries, then our own kids will not understand it.”

On July 26, there will be a John Lewis Youth Jazz Piano Competition – named for the jazz pianist and composer who grew up in Albuquerque – open to all middle and high school students. There will be cash prizes for the first- and second-place winners, and the victor will perform at the annual John Lewis Celebration the next day.

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