The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a once a month column in which Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
Not far from the entrance that leads State Fair goers to a midway full of carnival rides and games is a beige building with a tin roof partially surrounded by an adobe wall of the same color.
During the fair, passersby glancing in that direction will see a courtyard full of tables displaying colorful jewelry, headgear, purses and dresses. It’s home of the African American Pavilion, one of many cultural centers featured on the Expo New Mexico grounds. The center is named for civil rights activist Alice K. Hoppes, but the adobe structures at the north and main street entrances displaying her name offer no clues to who she was and what she meant to Black people in New Mexico.
Hoppes was born May 20, 1939, in Tucumcari to Harold and Bessie Kent. She attended segregated schools and grew up segregated from her white counterparts in the city. It’s said that while attending school, one of her white teachers used a racial slur in class, to which Hoppes strongly objected. Hoppes, who grew up using her middle name Faye, was suspended for her actions, but claimed the teacher never used the racial slur again.
Her sister Haroldie Spriggs told the Albuquerque Journal in November 2002 that Hoppes was the person in her family to object the loudest to discrimination.
“It bothered her that we had to sit in the balcony at the movie theaters,” she said. “She hated the fact that we were in segregated schools and she hated that when we received our books at the beginning of the year, they were the castoffs from the white schools.”
It was an upbringing that spurred her to action as an adult when she moved to Albuquerque in the late 1960s.
Not only was she instrumental in creating the African American pavilion that bears her name, she was president of the Albuquerque chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1984 to 1996, where she took on many causes, from defending Black teachers to advocating for an official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to pressuring the Albuquerque Police Department to hire more African Americans. She was also director of the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs, which she helped create, and a leader in the Democratic party and fought for prison reform, unfair labor practices and for fair housing.
For Hoppes, fighting for equal rights wasn’t just a job. She believed being a civil rights activist was her destiny; what she was born to do. A friend described Hoppes in her obituary as someone who always looked out for the underdog.
In the mid-’80s, Hoppes criticized Albuquerque Public Schools’ failure to meet affirmative action staffing goals. She even threatened to round up Black students in the district and have them sit out for a day in protest.
Hoppes was also not afraid of a fight when it came to doing what she believed was the right thing. In 1983, she crossed a picket line while employed as a maintenance administrator at Mountain Bell. She refused to pay the $81 fine imposed by the Communications Workers of America saying she resigned before crossing the line.
She sued, and was awarded $65,000 when the union tried to shame her for her actions, alleging its actions damaged her reputation and relationship with the NAACP. According to a May 8, 1985, Albuquerque Tribune story, the union drafted a letter calling Hoppes “amoral” and “devoid of character” and mailed it to national and state officials of the NAACP. She told the newspaper she did not take the decision to cross the line lightly, but she and her husband, who also worked for Mountain Bell, were supporting seven people and could not both afford to be out of work. She made less money than he did, so they decided to show support for the union. It would be her, not him, that crossed the line.
She was also frequently at odds with members of the city’s Black clergy, according to a Nov. 1, 2002, story about her in the Albuquerque Journal. Hoppes criticized them for not doing enough for the city’s Black youth. Some of the ministers, according to Hoppes, felt she was too outspoken.
“There are some ministers and other clergy who won’t speak to me to this day,” she told the paper. “I never lost sleep over it.”
Hoppes received several accolades during her lifetime. She was the recipient of the NAACP’s Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award, the governor’s award for Outstanding New Mexico Women and the Liberty Bell Award winner from the State Bar of New Mexico.
She died Oct. 21, 2003, at the age of 64 after battling cancer. After her death, Gov. Bill Richardson officially added her name to the pavilion she helped establish. Upon her death he ordered flags flown at half-staff.
“I am truly saddened by the loss of this great New Mexican,” Richardson said at the time of her death. “Alice was a leader who worked tirelessly to draw attention to the needs of New Mexico’s African American community.”
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email columnist Elaine Briseño at email@example.com as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”