The history of people of African descent dwelling along the El Paso-Juárez borderlands begins as early as the 1530s. Early Spanish expeditions, such as the ill-fated Panfilo de Narvaez and the more successful entrada by Juan de Oñate in 1596 brought along enslaved people. Estebanico, also known as the “Black Conqueror,” was an early example of an enslaved person from Africa (Morocco) dwelling throughout present-day Texas and New Mexico.[1] Africans were also involved in resisting the European conquest of North America, such as being part of the Pueblo Revolts. In 1752, José Antonio, another enslaved person brought from the Congo, settled in El Paso and, after eight years, married an Apache woman named Marcela.[2] According to historian Maceo C. Dailey, “These Africans and their descendants constituted the early El Paso black community and are indicative of the rich cultural past of Africans as they evolved into African Americans.”[3] Ever since the early European conquerors’ arrival in the New World, African people were also building the foundations of modernity’s conquest of the El Paso-Juarez borderlands.

A Growing Black Community along the El Paso-Juarez Borderlands

Following the continental expansion of the United States across the southwest, African Americans became agents in safeguarding expansion and imposing democracy across what were Native American lands. In 1867, the first encampment of black soldiers arrived at Ft. Bliss. In 1877, more Buffalo Soldiers came to Ft. Stockton to help settle the so-called “Salt Wars.”[4] Another wave of African Americans emerged with the arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad in 1881.[5]

Another factor contributing to the African American community’s growth in El Paso/Juárez was its reputation as a refuge from Jim Crow laws. El Paso’s proximity to the US-Mexico border with an already vibrant multi-racial demographic enticed many southern black families to migrate to the Southwest.[6] This exodus from white supremacy is known as the Great Migration. Due mainly to the introduction of the railroad and the labor of African Americans, Chinese, and Mexican migrants, by 1890, El Paso had a population of 10,000, becoming a boomtown almost overnight. Thus, by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, African Americans had already founded an energetic and resilient community within the second ward (Segundo Barrio) and south-central El Paso.[7]

The Ku Klux Klan and Black Resistance in El Paso

         However, many of the gains made by African Americans in the wake of the Reconstruction Era crumbled when local, state, and federal legislation began limiting the liberties and political rights of Black citizens. With the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, segregation became national law. In El Paso, some of the institutions to meet the needs of the African American community amidst the rise in segregationist laws were the Franklin School, later renamed the Douglass Grammar and High School (founded in 1883 and renamed in honor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass), the Second Baptist Church (organized in 1884 by Rev. E.M. Griggs), and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (organized in 1885). Other social organizations, such as the El Paso Clark Club Black Republicans, the Sunset Lodge No. 76, and the Prince Hall Freemasonry, indicated a vibrant and self-sufficient black community in El Paso.[8]

During the 1920s, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan also impacted El Paso via local and El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) board elections.[9] As social peace became threatened by World War One and the Mexican Revolution, nativist sentiments swelled during the 1920s. Although KKK-endorsed mayoral candidate P.E. Gardner lost his mayoral bid against Robert M. Dudley in 1921, thwarting the KKK’s complete control of the local police, they were able to recruit several officers. Moreover, the KKK successfully took over the EPISD board and revised its curricula to reflect a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon vision of America.[10]

Resistance to white supremacy in El Paso began relatively early during the 1910s with the work of Dr. Lawrence Aaron Nixon. Dr. Nixon and Leroy White Washington founded the first chapter of the NAACP in Texas in 1910.[11] Escaping racial violence in Central Texas, Dr. Nixon would also set the legal precedents necessary for defeating the all-white primary electoral process. The work of Dr. Nixon embodies the early roots of the Civil Rights Movement that would later explode during the 1960s and 1970s.

UTEP and the Black Community, 1950s-1960s

Beginning in 1954, the local NAACP chapter in El Paso sought to challenge the segregation clause in Article VII of the state constitution. Thelma White, a valedictorian from Douglas High School, would be the first student in Texas to break the color line when she was admitted in 1955 to Texas Western College (now UTEP). Then a decade later, in 1966, UTEP again broke the color line when its collegiate basketball team won the national championship with an all-black starting line-up, ushering in the collapse of Jim Crow across collegiate sports.[12] Presently, social organizations such as the Thelma White Network and institutions such as the McCall Neighborhood Center continue to maintain the vibrancy and activism of El Paso’s Black community.

Black Struggle and Resiliency Today

The African American community in El Paso can trace its origins to the 16th century. Ever since, this community has been an essential contributor to the growth of El Paso. Recent local BLM protests attest to the continuing importance of the Black community in shaping the democratic liberties in our region and throughout our nation.

References

Campbell, Howard and Michael V. Williams. “Black Barrio on the Border: ‘Blaxicans’ of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico” Journal of Borderlands Studies, 35.1 (2020), 147-161. DOI: 10.1080/08865655.2018.1530130

Carroll, John M. ed. The Black Military Experience in the American West. New York: Liveright, 1971

Dailey, Jr., Maceo C., Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, and Cecilia Gutierrez Venable, Images of America: African Americans in El Paso. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2014

Dailey, Jr. Maceo C. and Kristine Navarro, eds. Wheresoever My People Chance to Dwell: Oral Interviews with African American Women of El Paso. Baltimore: Black Classic Press: Imprint Editions, 2000

Esparza, Michelle D. “The Story of Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, A Black Doctor in El Paso, Who Successfully Challenged Two Discriminatory Texas Statutes in the U.S. Supreme Court,” El Paso Bar Journal (Fall 2020), 5-6

Guzman, Will. The Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands: Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and Black Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015

Juárez, Miguel. “From Buffalo Soldiers to Redlined Communities: African American Community Building in El Paso’s Lincoln Park Neighborhood,” American Studies Journal, 58.3 (2019), 107-124

Lopez, Nicole. “The Rich History of El Paso’s African American Community” El Paso Matters (February 26, 2021), https://elpasomatters.org/2021/02/26/the-rich-history-of-el-pasos-african-american-community/

Lay, Shawn. “Revolution, War, and the Ku Klux Klan in El Paso: A Study in Intolerance on the Border” M.A. Thesis, University of Texas, El Paso, 1984

Lim, Julian. Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017

Mata, Reyes. “Black History in El Paso: A Retrospective” El Paso Matters (February 11, 2022), https://www.elpasoinc.com/lifestyle/black-history-in-el-paso-a-retrospective/article_4f3b7fa8-8b4c-11ec-81a6-cbef2a8601d2.html

Viescas, Carol. “Celebrating Black History Month in El Paso: Brave Enough to be the Light” El Paso Inc. (February 5, 2021), https://www.elpasoinc.com/lifestyle/celebrating-black-history-month-in-el-paso/article_9f3ea410-6741-11eb-a072-2f53a9103fc7.html.

Wiggins, Love Berenice. Tuneful Tales. Dailey, Jr. Maceo C. and Ruthe Winegarten, eds. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2002          


[1] William J. Buchanan, “The Legend of the Black Conquistador” in The Black Military Experience in the American West, ed. John M. Carroll (New York: Liveright, 1971), 7-17. Estebanico (also spelled Estevanico), whose real name is Mustafa Azemmouri, was brought to the New World by his Spaniard enslaver, Andres Dorantes de Carranza. De Carranza, along with his slave Estebanico and Cabeza de Vaca, were the sole survivors of the de Narvaez expedition.

[2] Maceo C. Dailey and Kristine Navarro, eds. Wheresoever My People Chance to Dwell: Oral Interviews with African American Women of El Paso (Baltimore: Black Classic Press: Imprint Editions, 2000), 4

[3] Maceo Crenshaw Dailey, Jr., Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, and Cecilia Gutierrez Venable, Images of America: African Americans in El Paso (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2014), 7

[4] Ibid, 11. The “Salt Wars” were a dispute between the US and Mexico salt deposits 100 miles east of El Paso during the late 1860s.

[5] Julian Lim, Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 35. Southern Pacific was soon followed by other major rail networks connecting the El Paso-Juarez borderlands with industrial centers in North America and Mexico.

[6] Mexico outlawed slavery in 1824, about 40 years earlier than the United States, which prohibited slavery (except as a punishment for a crime) under the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 6th, 1865.

[7] The first black settlers in El Paso lived in the Second Ward alongside fellow Mexican and Chinese laborers and merchants, stretching from South El Paso to the border and Myrtle Street towards Cordova Island (present-day Chamizal National Park and Cordova International Bridge) and then extending along the Alameda corridor centering at the intersection of Piedras and Alameda Streets in South Central El Paso today. For a map of the early black community in El Paso, see, Wheresoever My People Chance to Dwell: Oral Interviews with African American Women of El Paso, eds Macedo C. Dailey and Kristine Navarro (Baltimore: Black Classic Press: Imprint Editions, 2000), 14. For a discussion on the rise and fall of the black community in Lincoln Neighborhood in El Paso, see Miguel Juárez, “From Buffalo Soldiers to Redlined Communities: African American Community Building in El Paso’s Lincoln Park Neighborhood,” American Studies Journal, 58.3 (2019), 107-124

[8] Dailey, Jr. et al., Images of America: African Americans in El Paso, 11

[9] Shawn Lay, “Revolution, War, and the Ku Klux Klan in El Paso: A Study in Intolerance on the Border” M.A. Thesis, University of Texas, El Paso (1984), 142-143

[10] Ibid, 190. For the recruitment of EPPD officers by the KKK see, Shawn Lay, “Revolution, War, and the Ku Klux Klan In El Paso,” 333, note 40. During this time, many of their schools were named after slaveholding, US-Mexico war heroes such as Bowie High School, Austin High School, and Crocket Elementary School (to name a few).

[11] Wheresoever My People Chance to Dwell: Oral Interviews with African American Women of El Paso, eds. Macedo C. Dailey and Kristine Navarro, 7. Also see Dailey, Jr. et al., Images of America: African Americans in El Paso, 39. For a biography on Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, see Will Guzman, The Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands: Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and Black Activism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015); and Michelle D. Esparza, “The Story of Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, A Black Doctor in El Paso, Who Successfully Challenged Two Discriminatory Texas Statutes in the U.S. Supreme Court,” El Paso Bar Journal (Fall 2020), 5-6[12] Charles H. Martin, Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010). It was also popularized in the Disney film Glory Road (dir. James Gartner, 2006).