Written and photography by Bud Russo
Our Past, Present, and Future series continues with a look back at New Mexico’s first African-American church.
Civic leaders are always talking about “moving forward.” And we should always be thinking about improving our community. But…and this is an important but…we shouldn’t forget our past. Throughout Las Cruces, there are a number of historic buildings that speak quietly of who we are and how we got to where we are today. This is the first in a series of stories about those buildings.
Beth O’Leary, professor emerita at NMSU’s Department of Anthropology, tells us the Phillips Chapel CME Church is the “oldest extant African-American church in New Mexico” and is “representative of vernacular church architecture showing a modest influen,ce of Spanish/Hispano architectural tradition—constructed by local workers in the style they knew.”
The small adobe chapel was constructed by Daniel Hibler, who had been cooking for railroad construction gangs in Raton in 1905. Two years later, Morris Freudenthal employed him as chef at the Don Bernardo Hotel. With a more stable employment situation, Hibler proposed to Ollie Barry of Denton, Texas, who agreed to marry him if he would start a church in Las Cruces.
That’s the story told by Clarence Fielder, who died at age 87 in 2015. Clarence taught in Las Cruces public schools for more than three decades and rounded out his career at NMSU.
Daniel, Fielder’s grandfather, paid $45 for a lot on the corner of Tornillo and Lucero streets, in the heart of the Mesquite District. He and others worshiping at the chapel called it Phillips Chapel CME, which first meant Colored Methodist Episcopal, but was changed to Christian Methodist Episcopal in the 1950s.
Completed in 1911, Phillips Chapel became the social center for the African-American community. It was not only the place where people worshiped, but also where they gathered for box suppers, hobo parties, and other festive events.
The church proved to be a pillar of strength for the community. There were Wednesday night prayer meetings, women’s missionary meetings, choir practice, and Saturday social events, in addition to Sunday services. It was where young people met and where they learned the values taught by their minister and the elders of the church.
Then in 1925, Las Cruces decided to segregate its schools, an event not corrected for nearly 30 years. Until that time, children had gone to their neighborhood schools. Only cities east of the Rio Grande decided to separate people by race, among them Las Cruces. The legislature passed a law saying, “It is for the best advantage and interest of the school that separate rooms be provided for teaching pupils of African descent and such pupils may not be admitted to school rooms occupied by pupils of Caucasian descent.”
Phillips Chapel then became not only the spiritual enter for the community, but the educational center. Thirty to 35 children were removed from Central Elementary School. The chapel became the African-American community’s school until 1934, when Booker T. Washington School was built.
Phillips Chapel continued to be used until recent years when the building had fallen into such a state of disrepair, it was considered unsafe. Then, Pat Taylor, world-renowned expert in adobe restoration, undertook restoration, using it as a lab for his building construction technology course at the Doña Ana Community College. In 2014, his students, volunteers, and he completed restoration in time for the chapel’s 100th anniversary.
Phillips Chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located at 639 N. Tornillo Street.