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My Nevada 5: The Black Pioneers Who Helped Tame Virginia City

Early African American settlers built their fortunes and pushed for equality in the surprisingly integrated Nevada community.
Business & Community  |  Feb 19, 2014  |  By UNLV News Center

A snowy Virginia City. (UNLV Special Collections)

Editor's Note: 

This piece comes from Claytee White, the inaugural director of the Oral History Research Center for UNLV Libraries. She contributed to the Libraries' new digital collection, Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas. She also is one of five founders of the Las Vegas Black Historical Society Inc.

Silver and gold offered the promise of prosperity and a better life to the people who flocked to Virginia City in the 19th century. There, the state's first black migrants found a racially integrated community of Asians, whites, Mexicans, and blacks. These blacks formed a legacy for civil rights militancy fostered by gold-seeking abolitionists, free blacks, and runaway slaves, some who had lived free for many years.

1. W.H.C. Stephenson

Stephenson, the state's first black doctor, was born in Washington, D.C., trained at one of the Eclectic Medical Institutes in Philadelphia, and practiced in Nevada from 1863-70. He registered to vote as soon as the 15th amendment passed and urged fellow black men in Virginia City to do the same. Stephenson began the fight for political inclusion of blacks as early as 1865, when he helped to organize the Nevada Executive Committee with a mission to press for legal equality. The committee 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 in large, tackling such significant issues as serving on juries and having access to schools.

2. George D. Cottle

Cottle owned the successful Virginia City Union Hotel and actively promoted the civil rights of black residents. One of his more notable battles stemmed from a dispute with a white person over the legal ownership of a piece of property. Cottle helped to form a committee that successfully pressured to have the constable judging the case, Patrick Lanman, arrested when he refused to allow Cottle's black witness the opportunity to testify.

3. William Brown

Brown was identified in 2003 when archaeologists conducted an excavation in Virginia City. He owned the Boston Saloon where mostly black patrons drank from crystal goblets, played dominoes by the light of newly patented gas lamps, and ate the finest food off of china plates. Brown, a free born black from Boston, Mass., began his entrepreneurial pursuits polishing shoes on the streets above the Comstock Lode when he arrived in the early 1860s. In 1864, he opened the famed eatery in the heart of the business district across the street from Piper's Opera House. In Mark Twain's column of the Territorial Enterprise, the saloon was described as a "popular resort for the colored population."

4. Amanda Payne

As did many black women in the early West, Payne operated a boarding house. Her success allowed her to acquire other lucrative businesses, including a saloon and restaurant. She was well known throughout the city and owned considerable property.

5. James Williams

A fugitive slave, Williams took advantage of his freedom of movement to conduct business in California and Virginia City. His mining ventures in California took him to the Comstock, where he sold dry goods and purchased six lots that increased significantly in value.

Learn More

Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas is a digital project of University Libraries. It connects users with the stories and historical evidence on the heritage of the Las Vegas black community -- its businesses, schools, churches, and political and social organizations.

UNLV is also hosting a number of events in February in honor of Black History Month. For more information, visit the Office of Diversity Initiatives website.