African American legacy celebrated at local gallery

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By Margaret McKinney
Highlands University

The New Mexico Highlands University Ray Drew Gallery features the pictorial history exhibit, New Mexico’s African American Legacy – Visible, Vital and Valuable, with an opening reception from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Nov. 10.

The Ray Drew Gallery is in the university’s Donnelly Library, 802 National Ave. The exhibit continues through Feb. 15, 2013. The gallery is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

The program for the Nov. 10 reception includes a step dancing performance by the Highlands University Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. In addition, tenor vocalist Josef Scott will perform “Make Them Hear You” from the musical, Ragtime, and Doris Fields will read poetry she wrote for the exhibit.

The African American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico developed the exhibit. Rita Powdrell is the organization’s board president.

“This exhibit focuses on the African American migration to New Mexico after the Civil War,” Powdrell said. “They were seeking greater freedoms and opportunities, looking for jobs as cowboys, trappers, traders, soldiers, miners, railroad workers, servants, entrepreneurs, teachers, and skilled laborers.

“These African American pioneers became intricately woven into the history of the territory and the state. This is a history filled with richness, dignity, persistence, faith and perseverance that contributed to the history of New Mexico,” Powdrell said.

The exhibit has been on display at locations like the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque and the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe.

“Moving the exhibit from place to place assists us in researching, collecting, preserving, documentating and interpreting the history and culture of Americans of African descent in New Mexico,” Powdrell said. “Eventually, we want the exhibit to include communities throughout the state. We always collect a lot of interesting history at the symposiums that are part of the exhibit.”

Highlands will host a symposium Jan. 26, 2013 titled “The Migration of African Americans to Northern New Mexico” and a Feb. 9 symposium titled “The Impact of the African American Athlete on New Mexico Highlands University.”

“Highlands University had a long history of working with African American athletes, providing scholarships for their education,” Powdrell said. “Highlands was one of the leading universities in recruiting African American athletes in the 1950s.”

To date, the “New Mexico’s African American Legacy” exhibit contains 36 panels of four communities, including Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Raton and Santa Fe. Each panel contains striking historical photos combined with text.

Themes for the panels trace the path of African American history in New Mexico, including the migration west, early settlers, homesteaders, original families, churches, social organizations, opportunities, entrepreneurs, newcomers and descendants, patterns of segregation and integration, and more.

Bob Read is the curator for the Ray Drew Gallery and the university’s fine arts librarian.

“This exhibit is important because it sheds light on a little discussed and important part of New Mexico history,” Read said. “When the show is exhibited in communities, it generates more panels, adding to the knowledge of how African Americans contributed to our state’s history. The exhibit has a powerful impact when you enter the gallery.”

Read said that Casa de Cultura was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Highlands. Miguel Angel, the executive director, and Georgina Ortega, the program director, saw the exhibit and contacted Powdrell.

“Miguel and Georgina loved the exhibit and wanted us to bring it to Las Vegas,” Powdrell said. “They’ll be reaching out to schools to encourage classes to see the exhibit.”

At Highlands, reference library associate Victoria Berry is researching the Donnelly Library archives and special collections for local African American history that may someday become panels in the exhibit.
Berry has located records ranging from Montgomery Bell, a successful Las Vegas cattleman, real estate agent and café owner in the late 1800s, to a 1912 Las Vegas prize fight that featured legendary American boxer Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion – a title he held from 1908 – 1915.
“Victoria has done an excellent job of combing through the history of Las Vegas and Highlands to find the sometimes hidden African American presence,” said April Kent, assistant librarian and head of public services.

The “New Mexico’s African American Legacy” exhibit is sponsored by the McCune Foundation, New Mexico Humanities Council, New Mexico Office of African American Affairs, and donations from the public.