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Recordings shed light on black experience in NM

February 17, 2014 Updated: February 17, 2014 at 11:15 am

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Meet Bill Huff. His age is unknown but the raspy tone in his voice hints at a person who has seen a lot during his lifetime. It was a random day in 1982 and the African-American man spent almost two hours discussing a time in Carlsbad that now seems like a distant memory.

He talked about several things, but mostly he talked about some of Carlsbad's darker times during segregation. However, he never let the negative feelings ruin his time in a city he had come to admire.

"It's a nice wonderful town," he says. "Lovely people here and nice folks here. Majority (people) here are good folks and they always been good folks here in this town, regardless of creed or color."

Huff may just live as a memory in some of Carlsbad residents' minds; he is just one of Carlsbad's black residents who were interviewed to be included in New Mexico State University's oral history interview collection.

In his interview, Huff said he moved to Carlsbad in 1944 from Colton, Texas, following a brief visit to the city. He did some minor work at a local car garage which is how he earned his living in Texas. Money was ultimately the deciding factor to drag him and his wife across state borders. A figure on a week's check from the Carlsbad garage was the ticket, even though it startled him at first. He said he thought his first weekly paycheck from the garage was a mistake. He was used to receiving $12 for a week's worth of pay at the garage in Texas. So, it should be understandable his shock when he saw a check for $55 at the end of the week. It was news he immediately told his wife.

"I said 'Honey, I tell you what. Did you know I made more money in one week then both of us work down there in a month?'"

The decision was simple and Huff moved down to Carlsbad. While $55 dollars a week sounds paltry by today's standards, he admitted in the interview it was the most amount of money he ever seen at that point. Work was a value Huff seemed to respect and honor. In the interview, he said his first job involved him washing dishes for a woman when he was younger. His pay: a chance to use her new bike for 40 minutes, which was fine by him. He asked his father if he could get a new bike he wanted, but his father could not afford a bike at the time. So his trade off was work for bike time. And he had no complaints.

"That was my pay," he said. "I was satisfied. (I) Had a stomach full food free of charge and riding a bicycle."

For Leget Reynolds, aka Deacon Jones, life in Carlsbad began earlier. Born in Charleston, Arkansas, Jones moved to Carlsbad in 1929, before the start of the Great Depression and was later interviewed too in for the library.

Jones talks about his time as a guitar player for cowboy dances around town. He loved playing, something he said he still did at a local church during his interview. And like Huff, Jones enjoyed his pay. Jones said him and his partner would split $80, $90, and even $100 per gig they played.

"I was scared to say anything about it," he said. "Somebody might rob me."

Jones was the youngest of 15, he said during the interview. He moved to Carlsbad for a better place to live. Jones spent time doing farm work, railroad jobs and highway work.

"When I first came to Carlsbad, there were just mesquite bushes and cotton patches," he said. "There weren't no country clubs. Just mesquites and sand dunes."

But don't add bartending as a job he loved. In the interview, he said it was the worst job he had. He spent time as a bartender at several local bars, but the fights and drunks became too much for Jones he said. In fact, he credits bartending as one of the reasons he quit drinking in 1965.

While these two people reminisced on some of their good times in Carlsbad, both Huff and Jones spent most of their first years in Carlsbad witnessing segregation first hand.

"When I first came to Carlsbad it was segregated," Jones said. "When I first come here, I couldn't go in the café in front."

And segregation extended further than the restaurants. Public schools were also, at one time, segregated.

Huff said African-Americans were not allowed to stay at the local hotels and motels on their trips from Hobbs to El Paso.

"The black folks that would come through here, they had to go to El Paso to spend a night," Huff said. "They couldn't stop."

Huff said a local man at the time felt bad about accommodations for African-American so much he offered Huff the chance to take over a five-room motel. Huff was only required to pay utilities for the facility, which he said featured furnished beds and stoves.

Huff was able to manage the small motel for blacks, which was profitable enough for him to build a second one down San Jose Boulevard. Huff also opened up a grocery store, which he claims in the interview was the first African-American operated grocery store.

When desegregation became a requirement, Huff said he struggled to stay afloat. Many of the other hotels offered more amenities such as swimming pools and restaurants. His second motel, which still had a loan on it, was sold to another buyer, he said. But it didn't keep him down.

"I lost it," he said. "But it was all right because it was good for Negros to have better accommodations. They could stop anywhere they wanted to when the laws had passed."

It was a statement that prompted some chuckles from the board of the Carlsbad Municipal School District.

According Bernita Smith-Payne, her father, Emmitt Smith (then the principal of Washington Carver, a black school) asked the board to offer funding for the spring commencement for the senior graduating class for the school.

There was just one problem: Jimmy Lloyd Thomas was the only student graduating that year.

"The board laughed and asked 'don't you have just one student,'" she said. "My father told them he still was on track to graduate and needed to have a service."

So the board decided to allow Thomas to spend half a day at Carlsbad High and joined Carlsbad High School, at this time housed at P.R. Leyva, for the year's graduation ceremony, Smith-Payne said.

Thomas' inclusion happened a couple of years before the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and paved the way for desegregation in the Carlsbad public school system. Since his graduation, Carlsbad was able to integrate smoothly, with little opposition. However, other communities did not embrace the change. Smith-Payne said other areas, such as Hobbs, suffered cross-burnings and protests similar to those that some Southern states experienced. Luckily, she said it never happened in this area.

"You're always going to see people who don't want to change," she said. "But it never got to the point of violence here."

Local historian Jed Howard of the Southeastern New Mexico Historical Society said he came across a newspaper article where the black band playing at the old Crawford Hotel was egged, but it seem like the only documentation of some sort of retaliation over desegregation.

Smith, who began working in Carlsbad in 1946, is often credited as a significant historical figure. He became the first black school administrator for the district.

"He was one of these people who love the community," Smith-Payne said. "He was involved in a whole bunch of things."

But Smith-Payne said desegregation was a joint effort from the entire community.

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