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Former Vado school receives recognition

LAS CRUCES – A Vado elementary school that served for 51 years as a segregated school for African-American students has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Paul Laurance Dunbar Elementary School served as a four-classroom school from 1926 until 1957. The building, which still exists, is at 325 Holguin Road, in Vado, across the street from Vado Elementary School. In the years since it ceased being a school, it has served as Vado’s community center and as a facility for the Head Start program.

Vado residents gathered Tuesday to celebrate the building’s historic designation, which became official on the last day of Black History Month.

“We have been working on this for years,” said Vado resident Espy Holguin, who is also an officer of the Vado Historical Society. “My husband, John, attended school there.”

John Holguin graduated from the school in 1957.

Lifelong Vado resident Bobbie J. Boyer attended the school from 1945 until 1954. She remembered two grades were taught in each of the four classrooms. She also had fond memories of “outstanding teachers and the principal, Gile B. Grimes,” and the education students received.

Boyer, whose family founded Vado as one of New Mexico’s first African-American communities, said the school’s designation as a landmark was the dream of her late husband, Roosevelt, and the Boyer family. The Boyer family came to New Mexico, from Georgia, about 1901, according to a news release from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division.

“This is something that means a lot to those of us that have lived in Vado,” Boyer said. “I’m so proud, so excited this is finally happening.

“So many black people came to New Mexico from southern states for a better life. It is important to remember this school and that Vado was an all-black community when it was settled because not everything that happened to black people in history happened in the South.”

The Vado school was named for renowned African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The school was constructed as a result of a 1925 New Mexico state law that permitted racial segregation in public schools, according to an application submitted to the National Register of Historic Places.

“When the school formally opened on Feb. 10, 1926, it taught elementary and high school students,” a portion of the application said. “Later, students traveled to Las Cruces for high school at the segregated Booker T. Washington School, which was built … in 1934.”

Most African-American students in the South attended substandard, poorly built and over-crowded schools because of Jim Crow laws. But that was not the case in most of New Mexico’s segregated communities.

“Segregated schools in New Mexico built for African-American children were often solidly built, as indicated by the brick-and-concrete Dunbar School,” said Steven Moffson, coordinator of the state Historic Preservation Division. “In fact, state legislation from 1925 required classrooms and schools built for children of African descent be ‘as good and well-kept as those used by pupils of Caucasian or other descent.'”

Segregation in New Mexico ended shortly after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision. Most southern states did not desegregate their schools until 1970.

“The Dunbar school is a landmark in the history of segregation and in the history of African-Americans in New Mexico,” said Jeff Pappas, director of the state Historic Preservation Division. “We’re grateful to have had the opportunity to list this school … not only for its important place in the state history, but because it opens the door for other underrepresented communities to come forward with important buildings and other cultural resources to be recognized in the Registers.”

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