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New Mexico State University

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Exhibit on the history of the Las Cruces African-American community will open in May

Terry Moody, an anthropology graduate student at New Mexico State University, is designing and fabricating an exhibit and a complementary brochure on the history of the Las Cruces African-American community (1890-2002). The exhibit, which will also be available on the NMSU Public History Web site, will open in May.

Graduate student Terry Moody, left, and Clarence Fielder, instructor of African-American history at New Mexico State University, stand in front of the Phillips Chapel CME Church in Las Cruces. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Clarence Fielder, instructor of African-American history at New Mexico State and the project historian, is assisting with gathering information and photographs from the African-American community.

The exhibit is being created with the help of a $1,500 mini-grant from the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities. Themes will include early settlers, homesteaders, the African-American neighborhood, businesses, social life, segregation and integration and community leaders. Text, photographs and other graphics will illustrate individuals, families, homes, social activities, occupations and entrepreneurial enterprises.

Moody also received help from Jon Hunner, professor and director of the university's Public History Program; Marsha Weisiger, assistant professor of history; and Edward Staski, museum director.

"To me (the exhibit) will tell a story about a people who came to Las Cruces with hopes and dreams," Moody said. "It's a story about making a life, how social dynamics can complicate that life and how life goes on."

One of the many stories that will be part of the exhibit will be the story of Daniel and Ollie Hibler, Fielder's grandparents.

"My grandfather first came (to Las Cruces) in 1905 to work as a chef," he said.

Daniel Hibler was hired by Morris Freudenthal to work at the Don Bernardo Hotel on North Main Street. He married Ollie Berry from Texas in 1907 and brought her back to Las Cruces where she worked as a maid for the hotel. The Hiblers, who were parents of the first Las Cruces black child, were founders of the Phillips Chapel Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. Later, they were owners of various restaurants around town, including the Jitney Cafe located on Main Street.

The project began when Moody wrote a historic preservation nomination for Phillips Chapel CME Church as a project for a historic preservation class.

While researching the history of Phillips Chapel, the oldest African-American church in Las Cruces, Moody and Fielder realized that the story that needed to be told lies beyond the walls of the one-story, wood-trimmed adobe building.

They wanted to share the history of the African-American community with others in Las Cruces.

"There's so much more of (African-American) history to be shared other than segregation," Moody said. "We want to talk about the many dynamics of the African-American community."

"I think (the exhibit) is revealing a fact of history that's been ignored," Fielder said.

The exhibit will be on display at several sites around the city, beginning in May at the Branigan Cultural Center in downtown Las Cruces. The University Museum will host the exhibit in January 2004. It will eventually have a permanent home at the Phillips Chapel CME Church, 638 N. Tornillo St.