Monday, May 27, 2024

HISTORIC BLACK VEGAS | Blacks in Virginia City

April 30, 2023 by  
Filed under Highlights

Claytee D. White

How Dr. W.H.C. Stephenson helped change the course of Nevada history


When I decided to write about some of the earliest Blacks in the state of Nevada, I searched Google to locate the UNR archeological dig that offered proof of Black participation in the town that served the Comstock. Of course, I was reminded that, in 1859, one of the most significant mining discoveries in American history was made in the Virginia Range of Nevada — creating the town of Virginia City almost overnight.

As I dug deeper, I discovered a piece that I wrote about Virginia City that mentioned Black contributions to the city. That piece covered the pioneering efforts of five Black pioneers. In this article, I’ll tell you about Dr. W.H.C. Stephenson.

Dr. Stephenson was born in Washington, D.C. around 1825. Trained at one of the country’s Eclectic Institutes, he became a doctor, preacher, and civil rights activist. He migrated to Virginia City in 1863, where he set up a medical practice for the Black community that may have been integrated. He founded First Baptist Church for Blacks, and began the fight for Black political inclusion as early as 1865 — when he helped to organize the Lincoln Club with a mission to press for legal equality. As historian Elmer Russo wrote, Dr. Stephenson united Blacks in Virginia City, Silver City, and Gold Hill. This larger group agitated effectively to seek equal representation in small ways, such as securing participation in city parades; and on larger issues, the group tackled access to schools and serving on juries.

Stephenson pushed for the application of the 1866 Civil Rights Act to Nevada for access to public schools. On January 1 of that year, at the celebration of the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, he stated in his remarks, quoted by Quintard Taylor in his book, “In Search of the Racial Frontier,” “It is for colored men to… fearlessly meet the opponents of justice… Let Colored men contend for equality before the law; nothing short of civil and political rights.”

He understood the importance of having Blacks serve on juries from a civil rights and business perspective. As a doctor who may have to bring court cases for nonpayment, he and other Black businessmen needed equal access to the justice system.

Dr. Stephenson registered to vote as soon as the 15th Amendment passed and urged fellow Black men to do the same. In the same year, 1870, he left Nevada — moving to Omaha and founding another Baptist Church. His fight for public schools for Blacks manifested in Virginia City in 1872, two years after he left Nevada. In Omaha, he continued to speak out against lynching.

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