Everyone in Santa Fe has a story about how they wound up here, but Karla Slocum’s studies have spun her all over the map.
Slocum is an anthropology professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying the black history of Oklahoma as a local resident scholar at the School for Advanced Research. Think of her as a cross-country vagabond, but with a PhD.
Although she focuses on Oklahoma, the larger context of her work also encompasses New Mexico, weaving a story about the West’s less-publiziced past.
Specifically, Slocum gathers and researches the little-known histories of all-black towns in the US.
“I was drawn to Oklahoma because it’s the state that has the largest number of historic black towns,” Slocum tells SFR. “And I also have [a] family background there. I have family who grew up in some of the towns that I study.”
Originally, Slocum was interested in how all-black towns are currently understood. That led to an exploration of the past.
“The way the towns are defined today is looking at what they were historically,” she explains.
All-black towns were early settlements, founded by former slaves, that grew to be towns run and inhabited almost exclusively by African-Americans. Slocum says there’s debate about their formation, but she provides some interesting explanations.
“We know that there were migrations from the South,” Slocum says. “There were African-Americans who wanted to leave the Deep South and who were looking for ways to escape Jim Crow.”
Oklahoma, she explains, was still a territory in the late 19th century, and it didn’t have the restrictive racial policies many Southern states did. That quickly attracted settlers, she says.
“In addition to that, though, there were people who had Native American status by virtue of having been enslaved in those tribes, and they were also people who formed those towns. People who had been former slaves of Native Americans were entitled to receive land just as any tribe member could, so they actually received about 40 acres per person and started forming towns.”
The names of these black towns might not ring any bells today, but at their peak, towns like Boley and Langston, Okla., had active business districts and even had their own electric and telephone companies.
After the economic collapse of the 1930s and the advent of desegregation and civil rights, many members of these towns left to seek opportunities in larger cities.
Today, few all-black towns have more than 1,000 residents.
In Santa Fe, Slocum will work to uncover the Southwest’s hidden black history. Blackdom, now a ghost town just south of Roswell, was one of the most well-known black towns in New Mexico, complete with a thriving farming industry, a hotel and a weekly newspaper.
Now, only a lonely historical marker rises from the rubble.
“I know about Blackdom. I have a sense that they’re not too widely known, at least not on the level of tourism and attention that I’m seeing going on in Oklahoma,” Slocum says. “While I’m here, I may try to do a bit of digging around.”
Thanks to Slocum’s research, the legacy of black towns throughout the West gains important visibility. Finally, in a post-segregation world, the towns receive the stake in history that they deserve.
“Prior to the 1980s and early 1990s, there wasn’t much interest or attention in the black towns,” Slocum says.
“These were things that were not taught in schools and not generally known.”
Tour Narratives of Race, Place and History: Expanding the Borders of America’s Black Towns
Noon-1 pm Wednesday, Dec. 12. Free.
School for Advanced Research
660 Garcia St., 954-7200