We Need To Honor Local Heroes

Aug 19, 2020

Commentary: In this time of contested history, it has become difficult to choose an appropriate way to recognize individuals who played a part in history.  People in the past lived out the ideas, values and cultural behaviors of their time.  Few rose above them. The seventeenth century Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate was no exception, and attaching his name to one of our high schools is now considered by some to condone or even celebrate his many violent actions.

On August 5, when the Las Cruces School Board decided on a new name for Oñate High School, they wanted their choice to memorialize a culturally neutral person, place or thing which would cause no offense.  They manifestly succeeded, as “Organ Mountain High School” celebrates an entity which does not exist. There are a number of named peaks in the Organ Mountain range, but “Organ Mountain” is not among them. And while it is certainly true that “Organ Mountain” never killed anybody, as the school board president pointed out, Las Cruces lost a rare opportunity to honor a local hero and educator by re-naming the school after him - Clarence H. Fielder.

Clarence Fielder was born in Las Cruces in 1928, a grandchild of early Black pioneers. They founded Phillips Chapel which also served as a segregated school for young Black adults as Lincoln High School from 1925 to 1934. Mr. Fielder was educated in and became a celebrated teacher from 1949 in the Las Cruces Public Schools and later at New Mexico State University (NMSU) until he retired in 2005.   Here are a few things he said:

“The student always comes first. Children deserve to be educated in pleasant and safe surroundings."

“Know thyself. Wisdom is what we receive from our elders and what we pass down from generation to generation. It includes your culture, your history, and your religion. When you add all this to your knowledge, then you have acquired wisdom. Then you know yourself.”

“It is important for people to know their heritage. It’s important for people to remember from whence they came.”

Clarence H. Fielder, an African American historian and teacher, was educated at the segregated elementary and secondary schools for Black children in Las Cruces.  His education began at the first Booker T. Washington School when it was little more than two tar paper shacks on the corner of Chestnut and Solano. Later he graduated from the newly constructed (1934) Booker T. Washington where all Black children attended grades 1 to 12. Mr. Fielder got a B.A. in Business Administration from New Mexico A& M College (now New Mexico State University).

As a first lieutenant in the US Army, he fought in Korea and was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star after refusing to leave his fellow soldiers, despite receiving serious wounds.  After his tour of duty, he returned to Las Cruces and continued his teaching career. He taught at Booker T. Washington, Court Junior High, and Alameda Elementary and Junior High Schools. Mr. Fielder earned his M.A. in Education (NMSU).  He was instrumental in creating the curriculum for the Black History Program at NMSU and taught 70 semesters there from 1970 until 2005. 

Some of the positions he held and the awards he received include:  Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education; Board of Directors, Las Cruces Public Schools Foundation; President of the Doña Ana County Historical Society; State Teacher of the Year Award; Outstanding Educational Services Award; “Griot Award” from the African American Museum and Cultural Center in Albuquerque, and was recognized twice by the New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs for outstanding individual accomplishment in preserving the history of African Americans, and the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award.

When Mr. Fielder passed away in 2015, Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said, “Clarence Fielder was an icon of our community.  Las Cruces has lost a kind and gentle man, a great educator and a great mentor.”

When a community choses to honor those who have made an extraordinary impact in its history, they should first look for heroes close to home.  Mr. Clarence H. Fielder is bigger than a mountain and deserves to have a school named in his honor.  The place to look for a name is right here in the Las Cruces community.