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Black history is also Las Cruces history


He was a Tuskegee Airman, the U.S. Army’s first African-American air fighting corps, formed during World War II, when the military was still segregated.

Las Crucen Clayton Flowers didn’t fly one of those P-51 Red Tails that made the Airmen famous, but he helped train those who did.

He also gave perhaps the best quote I’ve ever received when doing an interview.

In December 2018, when I attended Flowers’ 103rd birthday (he recently made it to 107!), I had the honor of visiting with him, and asked, “Of all things you’ve done over so many years, of which accomplishment are you most proud?”

He paused for a long time, so long I started to wonder if he’d heard my question.

Finally, he responded.

“I think I’m most proud of the fact my children like themselves,” Flowers said.

It took a minute for that to soak in. Not until later did I realize the power in that statement.

Flowers is not the only Tuskegee Airman who called Las Cruces home.

Another was Dr. James B. Williams, who grew up here and, after World War II, earned a chemistry degree from New Mexico State University. He got his medical degree at Creighton and broke racial barriers practicing medicine in Chicago, where he also served as personal physician to Dr. Martin Luther King. In 1963, he met with President John F. Kennedy with part of a national group fighting to end discrimination in hospitals.

Williams’ mother, however, born in 1905, came along too soon to avoid serious discrimination.

If the name Clara Belle Williams sounds familiar, you may have seen her name on a building on the NMSU campus.

Williams and her husband, Jasper, arrived in southern New Mexico in the 1920s. In 1908, she had been valedictorian at the historically Black college in Texas now known as Prairie View A&M. She and her husband were teaching school in Vado and then Las Cruces when Clara Belle enrolled at NMSU (then New Mexico College of Agriculture and Arts) in 1928. Because she had to go to college around her teaching schedule, taking mostly summer classes, it took her nine years to graduate, in 1937.

But the extra time was not the hard part.

Because she was Black, she was shunned from most of her classrooms, forced to listen to lectures from the hallway, taking notes while standing and leaning toward the door.

When it came graduation time, enough students protested about attending commencement with a Black woman that officials canceled the ceremony. That didn’t prevent Clara Belle from being the university’s first African-American graduate.

Years later, in 1980, NMSU awarded Williams another degree, an honorary doctorate of laws, which came with an official apology for the earlier struggles she endured.

Years after Clara Belle, and later her son James, walked the sidewalks of NMSU’s campus, other Black students and administrators made history in the field of athletics.

Pervis Atkins was a member of those 1959 and 1960 back-to-back Sun Bowl-winning NMSU football Aggies. Not only that, Atkins led the whole nation in rushing yardage in 1959. Did you know, in fact, that African-American Aggie runners led the nation in rushing for four straight seasons? Following Atkins, Bob Gaiters led the country in 1960, and Preacher Pilot was the top NCAA rusher in both 1961 and ’62.

After his pro football career, Atkins foreshadowed NMSU and Las Cruces’ later involvement in the film industry. The man who wore No. 27 as an Aggie became an actor and producer in movies and television in the 1970s and ‘80s. Perhaps his most notable acting role was in 1974’s “The Longest Yard,” where Atkins played a prison football player alongside Burt Reynolds.

Many of you have seen NMSU’s 1970 Final Four banner hanging from the rafters of the Pan American Center. If you’re under 50, the names Jimmy Collins and Sam Lacey may not ring a bell for you. But those were the stars of that Final Four team, stars who made their way to Las Cruces because Coach Lou Henson actively sought to recruit African-Americans at a time when many universities, particularly in the South, refused.

In 2004, NMSU brought in McKinley Boston as athletic director, a role at that time rarely filled by African Americans.

In America’s bicentennial year, 1976, Albert Johnson became the mayor of Las Cruces, the first African-American to serve as a mayor in the state of New Mexico.

He served for four years, but passed before his time, at age 49 in 1984 of leukemia. His namesake park and statue fill the southeast corner of Main Street and Picacho Avenue.

Many years later, Johnson’s cousin and co-worker at White Sands Missile Range, Alfred Rucks, served on the national board of directors of the NAACP.

Just north of Las Cruces, for 25 years between 1866 and 1891, a thousand Buffalo Soldiers – the often revered African-American members of the U.S. Army -- served or passed through Fort Selden.

You’ve heard the saying Black history is American history.

Black history is also Las Cruces history.