This month across the United States, people are shining the spotlight on the achievements of African Americans.
President Gerald Ford officially designated February as Black History Month in 1976 in an effort to highlight history that is often neglected or overlooked.
The idea was not new.
In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson and Association for the Study of Negro Life and History declared the second week of February as Negro History Week. The second week was significant because it marked the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, the president who abolished slavery, and Frederick Douglass, a man who escaped slavery and went on to become the leader of the abolitionist movement and an author.
Blacks in New Mexico experienced several firsts in 2020. Harold Pope was elected as the state’s first Black senator, Gerald Byers became the first African American district attorney and Shammara Henderson became the first Black appellate judge.
We talked to a few African American leaders in New Mexico to learn who influenced them along their road to success and which Black leaders or historical events they think more people should know about.
Gerald Byers, 62, became New Mexico’s first African American district attorney in November, running unopposed in Doña Ana County, the 3rd Judicial District. Byers attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and graduated in 1980. Byers came to New Mexico in 1992 to attend law school at the University
of New Mexico after being honorably discharged from the military.
Byers said an encounter with four-star Gen. Daniel James Jr. as a young man in the military bolstered his self-confidence. James flew in both the Korean and Vietnam wars and attended the famous Tuskegee Institute during WWII where he instructed pilots. He received numerous awards and medals and was the commander in chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
“He was very inspiring,” Byers said. “He made me believe ‘You can do this.’ It’s doable. America IS this place you can accomplish your dreams.”
Byers said he wishes more attention was given to historic Black educators in American history. He said it was educators who helped him push forward and process negative emotions he had when he experienced or witnessed racism.
One example, he said, is Dorris Hamilton, the first Black principal in Las Cruces. She was also the first African American woman to enroll at the University of Arkansas. Hamilton is in her 90s and still lives in Las Cruces.
Cytogeneticist Isatu Kaigziabiher, 45, works as a scientist in Santa Fe at LabCorp. He recently participated in the “Black Story//Black Song”history project aimed at infusing local classrooms and communities with more Black history. His portion of the project focused on the science contributions of Black people, including the invention of automatic closing elevator doors and the addition of the yellow light to the stoplight.
“An African American who has inspired me greatly is Benjamin Banneker, who was a tobacco farmer, and a self-taught engineer,” he said. “He mingled with many of the men who were responsible for putting together the American system as we know it today and through his intelligence, dispelled the unfounded myth that intelligence is linked to skin color.”
Banneker was born Nov. 9, 1731, and educated by his grandmother as well as receiving a formal education. He was responsible for surveying Washington, D.C., and also engineered the first all-wooden clock.
Kaigziabiher said His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was an important ally during World War II and is hailed by some for resisting Italy’s attempts at colonization during that time. Selassie was a founding member of the League of Nations, which would become the United Nations. Selassie has also been credited with modernizing his country. He helped establish the African Union while elevating his country to the global stage.
Shammara H. Henderson
Shammara H. Henderson, 38, became the state’s first Black appellate judge in February 2020. Henderson was born and raised in Albuquerque and the first in her family to attend college. She started her career as a litigator in the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office and started her own law firm in 2017.
A major African American influence in her life was Raymond Hamilton, founder of the New Mexico Black Lawyers Association and the first Black civil chief at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“He pushed me to work hard, to be open to all opportunities, and I knew he would always support me,” she said. “His passing in 2019 was one of my greatest losses, but I have never forgotten what he taught me, and when I decided to become the first Black appellate judge, I knew he was looking down on me telling me I could do it.”
She said more people should learn about retired District Court Judge Angela Jewell, who was the first Black woman to hold the position. Jewell was born in 1952 in Montgomery, Alabama, but raised on Kirtland Air Force Base. As a teen, her family relocated to an air base in Germany where she finished high school. She received a law degree from UNM in the ’70s. She married fellow lawyer Tommy Jewell, who also would become a judge, and the two started a law firm.
Earlier this month, the New Mexico Senate confirmed Sonya Smith, 54, as Cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services. Smith has a background in health care, and served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a medical technician in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.
Smith was influenced by her grandmother and mother growing up and professionally by Daun Hester, the city treasurer for Norfolk, Virginia, who is the first woman to hold the position there.
“Ms. Hester is a lifelong public servant having started her career as an educator, then city council member, former vice mayor, and state representative,” she said. “Her servant leadership inspired me to serve on the Norfolk Economic Development Authority, and to run for city council.”
Smith said the legacy of Shirley Chisholm has inspired many women of color, including Vice President Kamala Harris, to run for office and take active roles in their communities. Chisholm became the first Black candidate to run for president in 1972 and was also the first black woman to serve in Congress, being elected in 1968.
“My favorite quote by Ms. Chisholm is, ‘Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth,’ ” Smith said. “I agree.”