By Mike Linn
This is the story of a group of black men who fought for their lives, and one black man who fought for their honor.
It’s about soldiers who sought shelter, and a Portales man in search of a colorless society.
It’s about a 50-foot hill near the Texas border in Roosevelt County, a dusty embankment where a group of 25 to 40 black soldiers dissolved sugar in their own urine and that of their horses and drank it to fight dehydration in July of 1877.
The soldiers — Troop A of the U.S. Tenth Cavalry — were trying to force a band of Kwahada Comanche warriors back to their reservation in Oklahoma when they became weary at the foot of the hill.
Historians believe none of the soldiers died at the hill, which was located in Cochran County before New Mexico’s border was stretched into Texas. But historians say about 20 died in a 55-mile pursuit involving Kwahada Comanches.
Oscar Robinson, a black man, heard one of the many versions of the story at a Portales coffee shop in 1990. There, Eastern New Mexico University’s director of personnel welled up with anger when he found out people still commonly referred to the landmark as “Nigger Hill.”
The name has been passed down for generations among area residents, and in Cochran County and Roosevelt County history books.
On April 15, after years of research, Robinson received notice from the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee that a historical marker has been approved for the hill’s site east of Lingo.
A ceremony for “Buffalo Soldier Hill” is scheduled Saturday.
“When my generation dies, I don’t think there will be anymore Nigger hills,” Robinson said. “I think it’s my … right to say to the community that from April 15, 2004, the so-called Nigger Hill no longer exists.”
A historic tour and presentation of the new landmark is set from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturday at a site near the hill. There, Robinson plans to strike out the term “Nigger Hill” from the “Roosevelt County History and Heritage” book and replace it with “Buffalo Soldier Hill.”
“I can’t make everyone stop calling it Nigger Hill, but I do have control of the book I own,” Robinson said.
Teresa Nance’s father owned land where the hill rested, and said she played on the hill with siblings many times as a youngster.
“They can change the name — it will always be Nigger Hill to us. That’s what we were raised on. I don’t care if they change the name or not, it makes no difference to me,” said Nance, who is white.
Nance said the hill may have gotten its name after a Native American’s black horse died there.
Roosevelt County Commissioner Tom Clark lives in Rogers in South Roosevelt County and said he has been to the site of the hill many times. In 1940 his father dug up a button of one of the Tenth Cavalry soldiers, he said.
Clark, who is white, respects Robinson and his efforts, he said, but doesn’t understand why he fought for so many years to get the name changed.
“I think it’s silly to be that sensitive about issues that happened that many years ago and the way that it derived its name. But if it’s offensive to someone I don’t have a problem with the name being changed,” Clark said.
Wayne Victor, also a white man, lives about nine miles west of the hill, and said it’s about 50-feet high and can be seen for miles.
Victor is one of many area residents who have a different version of why the hill was given its name.
Like Nance, Victor has heard the story of the black horse dying at the hill. He also said one of the black men in the Cavalry named the hill.
“It seems like they’re trying to change history by changing the name,” Victor said.
Asked if he thought the name of the hill was derogatory he said: “Not in this sense, no.”
Murry Jeffries, a white man, farmed from 1940 to 1966 on land near the Texas border, where a school known as “Nigger Hill School” was buried on his property.
He said his tractor plowed up parts of desks from what he described as a small, one classroom school.
Jeffries said he didn’t have a problem with the old name of the hill, but said, “‘Buffalo Soldier’ suits me just fine. That’s more in line with what’s going on now.”
Many of the whites who live in South Roosevelt County said they don’t understand Robinson’s strong desire to change the name of the hill.
To them, the hill and its former name are a part of history.
And Ira Pottard, a Clovis black man who said he is the last Buffalo Soldier in existence, believes the name holds negative connotations, especially for blacks.
“I think it’s a good idea to change the name,” Pottard said. “For our race, the (old) name didn’t sound too good.”
Robinson said the hill’s former name was derogatory, and change was necessary to help society move forward. He said he doesn’t feel proud for fighting for the change. He says as a black man it’s part of his duty.
“If my grandkids found out there was a Nigger Hill and I lived here, ah man I’d be rotting in my grave if I didn’t try to make a change,” Robinson said.
He added: “I’m not a civil rights activist. I’m a person who believes in ‘Give me dues if I earn them, take them if I lose them. Respect me for what I say, and not for the color of my skin.’”