Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Hill With Racist Label Renamed in Honor of Buffalo Soldiers
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
The land around Lingo on the far eastern edge of New Mexico is flat, very flat.
"If you stand on a thick phone book you will double your field of vision," Bob Julyan said.
And so the gentle rise of a hill there, just 50 feet above the smooth prairie, was significant enough of a geographic feature to serve as a perch in the late 1870s for a U.S. Cavalry company fighting in the Army's Indian wars.
During a hot July 1877 campaign against the Comanche, several company members died of dehydration. The men were African-American Buffalo Soldiers and the place became known as Nigger Hill.
A little more than 100 years later, the federal government's board that names geographic features has wiped that racial slur off the map literally by officially naming the place Buffalo Soldier Hill.
The movement began when Eastern New Mexico University's personnel director, Oscar Robinson, was having a cup of coffee before work in a café in Portales and chatting about local politics.
"Because I'm Afro-American, someone mentioned we have a Nigger Hill here in Roosevelt County," Robinson recalled. "I said, 'You have a what?' I said, 'I can't believe that.' ''
Robinson checked a map in the Roosevelt County Assessor's Office and "sure as daylight," he says, there was the name applied to a hill just west of the tiny town of Lingo.
And so began the campaign to wipe a racist label from the maps of New Mexico.
Robinson was joined in the fight by Phillip Shelley, an archaeologist and dean of ENMU's graduate school. Together they lobbied the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to name the hill Buffalo Soldier Hill.
On Oct. 12, Julyan who is the chair of the Geographic Names Committee, gathered his evidence to make a case for Buffalo Soldier Hill to the board that officially names natural features in the United States.
In support of the new name was a historical account of the 10th Cavalry campaign where the soldiers died; a unanimous vote by the Roosevelt County Commission in support of the name; and approval by the New Mexico Historic Preservation Commission for a historical marker to identify the place as Buffalo Soldier Hill.
As it turned out, the board didn't need convincing. Board members squinted at the photo to make sure there was a hill there and made the change.
Maps won't immediately reflect the new name. But whenever U.S. Geological Survey maps and other official maps are updated, they will feature Buffalo Soldier Hill.
Shelley, who is white, said he did not know whether the official new name will have any effect on how people locally refer to the mound.
But, "We're beginning to move society in the right direction," he said.
Robinson, 65, who is one of about 300 African-Americans among Roosevelt County's 18,000 residents, said he is relieved maps will be wiped clean.
"It's an ignorance my generation stood up against," Robinson said. "We parted that water a long time ago."