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One of the speakers during a series of Black History Month events in Las Cruces in February is New Mexico State University Associate Professor Henrietta Williams Pichon, Ph.D. A native of New Orleans, Pichon has discovered since moving to Las Cruces in 2013 that black history is unique in the Southwest, partly because its beginnings in New Mexico and the region haven’t been explored or understood as they are in the Deep South.
Las Cruces is “harmonious, peaceful, very serene,” she said. “In some ways, we’re a model.”
More teacher than historian -- “Education is my thing,” Pichon said – her abiding interest is in the impact of Las Cruces’ black history on students.
Before the Civil War, Pichon said, everyone in the Las Cruces area was “learning together.” After the war, many southern states began passing laws that segregated schools, businesses, housing and public facilities. That made it “easier to exclude blacks” outside the South as well, Pichon said, and Las Cruces “began to see the segregation in the schools.” (Pichon said It was interesting to discover that New Mexico’s history as a territory and in its early statehood often showed a stronger bias against Hispanics than blacks.)
The New Mexico Legislature gave local governments the option to segregate classrooms in 1925. Nearly 30 years later, in May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the segregation of children in public schools in its landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling.
When Harvard opened its doors as the United States’ first higher education institution in 1636, racial integration wasn’t a consideration, Pichon said. Because of segregation, separate black colleges opened in some cities, some well before the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1977 that the federal government was ordered to establish uniform criteria for the statewide desegregation of higher education systems.
Blacks began attending NMSU after 1940, according to NMSU, but it wasn’t until 1970 that the first black history class was offered at the university.
NMSU’s hope today is that students will “be able to see themselves in a community that they’re a part of,” Pichon said, and also see that community and their own unique identities as “a part of who they are.”
NMSU has seen increased diversity in its student population in the past 40 years, Pichon said, but there are still discrepancies in graduation rates. To address that, faculty and staff must guide students both academically and socially, helping them overcome challenges like being the first in their families to go to college, she said.
It’s not a matter of “hand holding,” but more of mindfulness “about diversity and inclusion,” of seeing students in different ways and seeking out the ones who sit quietly in the back of the class to “bring them into the conversation,” Pichon said. It may also mean engaging with a visually impaired student by enlarging the text during a PowerPoint presentation or helping a student access information or resources without having to seek special accommodation.
It’s about making human connections,” Pichon said.
As a distinguished member of the NMSU Teaching Academy, she encourages NMSU staff to use “all the resources available to them” both on campus and in the community to help their students.