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"Minority Involvement and the Hoover Dam Project": manuscript draft by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1970 (year approximate) to 1996 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Unpublished manuscripts file.

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man000930. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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Minority Involvement and The Hoover Dam Project
The Hoover Dam project of the 1930s served many purposes not. the least
of which was that of helping address the problem of widespread unemploym>;<
in the United States. The Stock Market crash of 1929 has cost millions o-'
Americans their jobs. They were forced, by that event, to eke out a 'iviny
the best way they could. Some were reduced to simple panhandling and others
resorted to selling apples on the streets of urban centers. Eventually, tgovernment
would offer some assistance through the establishment of mp Jues"
and other relief programs.
Many of the unemployed scoured the country in search of work. Ai a?
thousands of miles of railroads which criss-crossed the country there
be found "hobo" camps. Riding the rails, or as one writer put it: '
to the open road", was a way of life for many. These were not bums,
were men who were looking for a way to make a living. There have be
of movies made which characterize both the times and the people. "I*
Godfrey", "Emperor of the North", "Hard Times" and "The Grapes of Wt
are but a few.
Las Vegas found itself at center stage during those first years
depression. Because of its proximity to the dam site, it became an
boomtown. According to the Las Vegas Age newspaper, "over forty-twe
letters of inquiry arrived from prospective job seekers'^ once the v.
out that there would be work there.
"Experienced only" did not apply to workers interested in the da; t.
Those who arrived came from all walks of life. They had been farmer•. rs,
salesmen, taxi drivers, movie company gaffers, factory workers and ever
brokers. Few had any prior experience at building dams. Mr. Joe Kine, .gtime
Boulder City resident recalls that "he had never done that kind ;.
From what I could see, nobody had. We just learned as we went along, ‘'.h i I
started off they were still digging the tunnels. I worked there for a while.
2 After that I became a high scaler".
With the exception of the technical jobs (engineering, explosives and such) common laborers were used extensively. Even at that, quite a number had little experience at that kind of work. While it may well be true that upon their arrival in 1930-31, few had any experience building dams, by the time they completed that project and went on to build other dams in other places they had become the best dam workers in the world.
All was not well, however. Those thousands of newcomers posed threats to Las Vegans who felt that they should have preference in hiring to whatever jobs that might become available on the project. To compound that circumstance, there was a great deal of confusion in the hiring process. Preference was eventually given to Nevada residents who were also veterans but, by the time actual construction of the dam got underway, those newcomers to the area had fulfilled residency requirements and the great majority of them were indeed 3 veterans.
The local Chamber of Commerce attempted to ease some of the pressure by screening prospective workers and registering them. It did not register "men who had lived here less than one year" and it reported that it had "checked the references and approved 138 white men and 37 colored men who have been residents a year or longer". No additional racial groups were acknowledged by the Chamber. Indians were obviously excluded and Mexican-Americans who, from time to time, are included in tabulating the white population may well have been included there.
The Red Cross also became involved in the process of identifying workers. Perhaps owing to their efforts to assist the new arrivals in securing food and lodgings, they attempted, with limited personnel, to serve as a clearinghouse in determining the needs of those who passed through its doors. In a letter
to Leonard Blood, Director of the Las Vegas Labor Office who made the final determination as to who would be hired on the project, the Executive Director of the Red Cross informed him that they had "...endeavored to refer to you only those men who are heads of families and who seem fit to work."5 There is no record of how many minority aspirants partook of those services and who were subsequently recommended to the Labor Office. However, it is known that the contract for the dam project prohibited the employment of "those of the Mongolian race"5 and that it would be almost two years later before the first black workers, following a series of mass meetings, rallies, demands and intervention of the Department of the Interior, would be hired as part of the dam crews. The first Indians would be hired two months later and throughout the construction of the project there would be a handful of Mexican-Americans. However, it is highly probable that their combined totals never exceeded one- percent of the workforce.
The cause of the initial exclusion of black workers was due in large measure to the racial perceptions of the labor office director. He suggested that blacks should not be hired on the project because their presence would cause tension with the white workers. Additionally, he concluded that there would be "difficulties of housing and feeding 'colored labor', and the cost of providing separate facilities..." would be an undue expense.7
In all of the previous years of southern Nevada's short history there had been no segregation in housing or public accomodations. An attempt had been made in 1909 while Walter Bracken served as a local representative of the Las Vegas Land and Water Company. F.A. Waters, in a letter to Bracken, dated August 3 of that year, suggested closing block 17 and turning it "into residence district which would be the district desired by colored people and Mexicans, etc. for residence district."8 Bracken, seven days later, in a letter to the Vice President of the company, H.I. Bettis, wrote that "block 17 could be converted
into a residence district for a certain class of people which is badly needed here in Las Vegas, so that they will not be scattering around through town."" Block 17, incidentally, was adjacent to the "red light" district which was restricted to block 16.
Nothing came of either effort even though Bracken continued with his efforts through 1911. In March of that year, in yet another correspondence to Bettis, he wrote: "Our colored population, Mexicans etc., is growing very rapidly and unless we have some place for this class of people they will be scattered all through our town."10 Midway through the letter he acknowledges that "we of course could not herd these classes of people to any certain block."11 In closing, he wrote that "other property owners in town are refusing 12 to sell them property where they will be mixed with the white people."
We know that those attempts to establish segregation in housing did not bear fruit during those years. Las Vegas, the only town of any size in southern Nevada, did indeed have open housing during its first thirty-five years. There was, however, that typical economic form of segregation which set the "swells" apart from those who were not.
None of this is designed to suggest that Las Vegas was generally free of prejudice. Recognizing that there are four types of prejudicial personalities (the non-prejudiced non-discriminator, the non-prejudiced discriminator, the prejudiced non-discriminator and the prejudiced discriminator), prejudicial attitudes might well have been present but was not manifested in discriminatory behavior. Leonord Blood was probably defined best by the fourth category. At any rate, his refusal to hire black workers on the project because of "the cost of providing separate facilities" for them was singularly his own doing. There is no record of any pressure being brought to bear on his office by local citizens to exclude black labor.
Further, as stated earlier, America was out of work. Families were standing in soup lines, doing without, being evicted and having their hopes
dashed. Men were riding the rails, living in hobo camps, pan handling and, in some places, ending up on chain gangs because of vagrancy laws. These men were not going to turn down jobs because they did not like the complexion of a co-worker. Blood, as labor director, relinquished his authority and the Six Companies aided and abetted him.
There was no love lost between labor and management during those years. Management failed in its role. The visible beneficiaries of that failure was white labor who, because of the illusion created by management, assumed that they indeed had domain over who would and who would not be allowed to work on the project.
Leonard Blood and the Six Companies, by their refusal to hire minority workers on a federal project and financed by federal funds, gives a clear example for the need, even then, for affirmative action in hiring policies. Boulder City, built with federal funds to house dam workers, was a segregated community. Some portion of those funds was derived from taxes paid by racial minorities. They, thereby, subsidized racism.
In early 1932 it was reported in the Las Vegas Age that "when the Hoover Dam has been completed, an average number of nearly 4,000 employees will have rolled up the stupendous number of 71,500,000 man-days worked by the typical dam worker of 37 years of age, white, American born, and representing every state in the Uni on. "13 That description of the work force would remain constant for an additional five months until July of 1932 when some small changes would take place.
Charges had been made that while blacks and other minorities were expected to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, their rights were ignored and not protected as provided by the Fourteenth Amendment. "When the call to arms came in the Great War our gobernment called for American citizens, regardless of color. Many of them are unable to obtain work" on the dam project where even foreigners were being employed
In May of 1932, William Pickins of the national office of the NAACP, who had made several earlier trips to Las Vegas seeking equity in employment opportunities, returned. He returned because even though some promises had been made, conditions in employment practices had not changed. That visit was highlighted by an open meeting in which several prominent white Las Vegans were in attendance. Nye Wilson, Mayor Ernie Cragin and Leonard Blood were among those. Pickins' address extoled the contributions blacks had made in the historical development of the nation J5 ;-Still no blacks were hired on the project. Fortunately Pickins, Arthur McCants of the local chapter of the NAACP, O.B. Allbritton of the Colored Citizens Labor Protection Association and others persisted. In a meeting between they, representatives of the Six Companies, Senator Tasker L. Oddie and Secretary Lyman Wilbur of the Interior Department, it was decided that there would be "no further discrimination against the employment of Colored labor on the Hoover Dam. Finally, an admission of discrimination was made.
The Age reported on June 18, 1932 that Secretary Wilbur had said that "when additions to the force are made the Company will arrange to give employment to Negro labor.W.A. Bechtel, President of the Six Companies, chimed in saying "he had never heard of any refusal to employ colored people and that he would take the matter up immediately on his return to Boulder City, and see that provision was made for their employment on the work when and if they had the necessary experience.'^ As stated earlier and also in other publications, such prior experience had not been a prerequisite for white workers. A year and a half into the project obviated that white workers would be more experienced. That was true not only for those who were currently on the workforce but also for those thousands of others who had been part of the daily turnover and who, quite likely, comprised a reasonable portion of those who were waiting to be IQ hired as openings became available. In that kind of competition those minorities
members who, because of prior exclusionary practices, had no previous experience would be at a distinct disadvantage.
Two months following Pickins1 open meeting to discuss the concerns of minority employment on the project, on July 8, 1932, the first ten blacks were hired.20 Two months later the first Native-Americans were hired. They were not local Piutes but rather Apaches from Arizona. The Review Journal reported on their arrival. "Six trained Apache Indian high scalers will perform in the dangerous reaches of Black Canyon on work being done on Hoover 21
Dam." While highscaling was indeed dangerous, it was the glamour work of the project. Zane Gray, in his novel Boulder Dam, has the hero being a "high- 22
scaler". Of those Apaches, the newspaper revealed that "they have been trained in this work, having worked on the Roosevelt Dam years ago in Arizona and having worked more recently on the Coolidge Dam, also in the Apache country po of Arizona.
Just as blacks had found it necessary to petition time and again through the intervention of William Pickins of the NAACP for employment opportunities on the dam, Indians found it necessary to do the same. "These sure-footed brawney men were placed on jobs here through the efforts of an Indian who is Indian Agent for some of the tribesmen who are wards of the government, and who has been in Boulder City several times in their behalf, working in cooperation with Construction Engineer Walker R. Young."2^
Mexican-Americans did not fare much better on the actual work on the dam. They, along with a handful of blacks and Navajo Indians who were a part of the railroad crew stationed at Las Vegas and Caliente, were involved in building the railroad spur from Las Vegas to the dam site. All three had long been involved in railroad work, along with Chinese who were excluded from work on the dam by a contractual restriction, since the years of the construction
of the Transcontinental Railroad of the 1860s. All three had been part of
the railroad maintenance crews stationed at Las Vegas since the railroad first arrived in 1905.25
The task of constructing that spur was preliminary to the actual work on the dam. There were several other projects associated with the dam project. Among them were: construction of a seven mile highway from Boulder City to the dam site, construction of Boulder city, construction of a highway to Boulder City and construction of a power transmission line (222 miles) from San Bernardino.6 It was on these projects that there was some degree of integration of the workforce. Ray Lyman Wilbur in a report titled The Hoover Dam Power and Water Contracts and Related Data, pointed out that the only integration in effect on the dam project had to do with the operation of other projects on the Colorado River.' That revelation has significance in in light of the stated objective for the creation of Boulder City. "The government wants all of the people connected with the construction of Hoover Dam to live in comfortable, sanitary fashion commensurate with a federal project of the nature of this one.'28 It was "estimated that during the con- 29 struct!on period the city contained some 8,000 people. "The Boulder Canyon ,30 project is the only Federal agency which own housing.
There was some Mexican-American involvement in those construction projects. Ramon Carralaga, who came to Las Vegas in 1930 and remained here for the next thirty seven years, recalls that there were "seven or eight (Mexican-Americans) who had worked in the mines near Austin who worked with one crew clearing 31 away brush, digging holes and making a road bed.1 He and two others: "One was named Guzman, I think, and I don't remember the other fellow's name, returned to Las Vegas and got jobs working in the tunnels. I remember that there were several others there at the time but there were never very many as far as I know. They put up a rock and dirt dam to get the river going through the tunnels later on and they had a bunch of us cleaning out the river bed. They
called us muckers and some of the fellows didn't like it. I think it was because
the crew boss was from Texas and they thought he really meant something else."32 Garralaga and the other Mexican-Americans lived either in Las Vegas or in McWilliams Townsite (Westside). He did not think that any lived in the dormitories at Boulder City.33
Former Boulder City Commissioner Morgan Sweeney worked as a supervisor at Anderson's Cafeteria at Boulder City where the majority of the workers took their meals. His job was to ensure that only bona-fide workers entered. Each worker wore a badge and each badge had a number. During his stint as supervisor, he was called, by his own testimony, "Four-Meal Sweeney". He had gained that moniker because sometimes a worker, who had a friend who did not have a job, would loan his badge in order to enable the friend to enter the cafeteria and get a meal. When the friend would approach the entrance to the cafeteria, Sweeney would glance at the badge number, look at the face above it and if the two did not match up he would confiscate the badge and retain it through the next four meals. When asked how he managed to do that, his reply was: "I had a photographic memory. I knew every badge number and every face that belonged to it".34 He did not, however, ever remember seeing a minority person eat in that cafeteria.
For all of its history, the United States has been a multi-racial, multicultural society. It has not always been pretty and it's not that even today but it is not nearly as ugly as it once was. Sometimes in our zeal to imagine ourselves as being perfect we either consciously or unconsciously omit those episodes in our history which might blemish it. I suppose that is allowable if we want to insist on our inability to accept the truth. Perhaps it is true, what they say, about the truth hurting so we dole it out in small pali- table doses so as not to really notice it. Sooner or later we have to grow up and admit that we did indeed do some dastardly deeds. Let's straighten it out, bring closure to it and go on and try to become that which we've
convinced ourselves we are.