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"The Impact of the Hoover Dam Project on Race Relations in Southern Nevada": 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From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Unpublished manuscripts file.

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man000931. 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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The Hoover Dam project of the 1930s served many purposes, not
the least of which was that of helping address the problem of
widespread unemployment in the United States following the stock
market crash of 1929. Many were forced to resort to the life of
hobos as characterized by movies such as "My Man Godfrey".
The state of Nevada, especially southern Nevada, played a
major role in helping ease the economic difficulties of the entire
nation. Its role was not necessarily a result of the depression.
Beginning in 1914, serious consideration had been given to
constructing a dam on the Colorado River. Engineers, geologists
and other scientists began to spend the cooler months doing
preliminary studies in determining the best site on the river for
such a project. Lees Ferry, Arizona separated the upper basin
from the lower and the needs of the two were debated. Among
those items debated were the relative importance of navigation,
domestic and agricultural uses of water and power separation.
(Wilbur and Ely, 1933, p. 6]. By 1922, the Commission had drafted
the Colorado River Compact and, according to Wilbur and Ely, it
determined the distribution of the waters of the Colorado between
the upper basin states and the lower basin states.
The Boulder Canyon Project Act was passed by Congress in 1928
and, the following year, the Swing-Johnson Bill, which authorized
the construction of a dam at Black Canyon on the Colorado River,
was also approved by Congress. These events all preceded the
collapse of Wall Street.
Las Vegas found itself at center stage during those first years of the depression. Because of its proximity to the future dam site, it became an overnight boomtown. Southern Nevada found itself in a position to generate thousands of new jobs. Americans from all parts of the United States turned their attention to southern Nevada for possible employment opportunities. Within months of the "crash" the first of those who sought employment began to arrive in Las Vegas. By New Year's Day of 1930, one study points out that "over forty-two thousand letters of inquiry had arrived from prospective job seekers." (Kleinsorge, 1941, p. 301).
Those letters were soon followed by their writers and others. Las Vegas was not prepared to accommodate such an influx. While there had been adequate housing for permanent residents, there was not a sufficient surplus of housing for the new arrivals. During the early months of 1930, they could be found sleeping in whatever makeshift shelters they could either find or build. Some did their sleeping on the .lawn in front of the Post Office building while others did so in cars, gulleys or lean-tos. All in all, according to one newspaper report, there was created "a pitiful and pathetic sight." ("Living Conditions," 1931).
Those job hopefuls represented every stratum of American life. The editor of the Las Vegas Age, daily wrote of their presence. He suggested establishing a local welfare system for those who needed it and a chain gang for undesirables. (Squires, 1931). There is little doubt as to who or what groups were considered "undesirables." Early on, when the first news of the
impending dam project became known, vagrancy laws had been put in place ("Vag Roundup," 1930). Just over a month before Squires' editorial, Chief of Police Nash had said that he would use "chain gangs" to rid the city of undesirables ("Las Vegas Bright Spot," 1931). A cursory examination of those reports and of subsequent newspaper crime reports offers a list replete with either "Mexican" names or persons identified as "colored" ("Two Jailed", 1932; "Three Rum Raids," 1932). At a time when white Americans waited for work on the project, eight car loads of blacks from Alabama are described as being destitute: "out of food, gas, everything" ("Colored Workers Stranded," 1932). Those workers were "put up" by a church on the westside and the city fed them for two days while they waited for the first opportunity to proceed on to the wheat fields of Washington where they hoped to get work. That June in 1932, blacks had not become a part of the workforce of the dam project.
For more than a dozen years, labor conditions for blacks and for other racial minorities in Las Vegas had experienced some remediation. The month before what James Weldon Johnson, the black author, termed the "Red Summer" began, in 1919, a report of the Las Vegas Union Pacific Shop Federation showed movememt toward segregation.
We the Americans of the entire shopcraft of all departments in the shops and yards on the L.A. & S. L. request that no man without their Citizen Papers be hired. And that none other than American Citizens be promoted or permitted to learn a trade. And that none but white men be promoted as we feel that it is not fair for us to be compelled to work with them in shops ("Union Pacific Shop," 1919).
That report was written in 1919 and clearly excluded all people of color. The wave of racial hysteria which swept the country
following the release of the movie "Birth Of A Nation", the ongoing fear of a "yellow peril" along with a continuing disdain for Mexicans and Indians placed all four groups at peril. Those four racial groups were among those who were most undesirable as economic conditions worsened and competition for jobs increased.
However, while such attitudes may have indeed been present, they were not always acted upon. From the very early years of Las Vegas' existance, there had been racial minorities and "foreigners" among the crews which brought the railroad to Las Vegas in 1905 and who remained as part of the permanent maintenance crew. They were not always well thought of by local residents ("A Nuisance," 1905). It is important, however, to note that there did not appear to be racial discrimination in the hiring practices of the Union Pacific Railroad in regard to laborers and maintenence workers ("Black Pioneers," 1973). That fact is further supported by the occupations provided in census reports for Las Vegas dating back to 1910 (Census Reports: 1910). Such conditions were mirrored in the northern portion of the state and was true to such an extent that it brought about allegations that preference in hiring of alien workers over American workers were bantered about. Sometime during the latter part of 1930 those allegations prompted Senator Tasker Oddie to register a complaint with the United States Immigration Services. Shortly thereafter, investigations in both the northern and southern portion of the state, in regards to railroad workers, was launched. The investigations were carried on at the Union Pacific Offices in Las Vegas and at the Southern Pacific Company of Reno and outlying areas. The first report of the findings of the investigation of those charges levelled by Oddie was filed on December 22, 1930 by P.J. Farrelly, Immigrant Inspector for the U.S. Department of Labor.
Farrelly's investigation was centered in the northern part of the state. His investigation was initiated with his interviewing "Walter Allen, City Clerk of Sparks, Mayor Jackson of Sparks, and Vernon Rurar, Cashier of the Bank of Sparks, he being also identified with the Legion activities in Nevada. They stated that there was a general depression in Sparks and vicinity; that the Southern Pacific Company had laid off a number of employees, but they did not know that the Southern Pacific Company had hired any new employees to take the places of those laid off" ( Farrelly, 1930).
That: investigation of hiring practices of the Southern Pacific Company was thorough. Not only did Farrelly interview those responsible for the actual hiring and firing but he also interviewed civic leaders, businessmen and police officials. In most instances, it was found that when American workers were "laid off" it was due to economic conditions and that those positions remained vacant. Such testimony was given by Mr. R.B. Spears, Chairman of The Grievance Committee of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Mr. F.K. Kubler, Roundhouse superintendent at Sparks division and Mr. J. Burks, Chief Clerk of the Sparks Division (Ibid.).
Further, Farrelly reports that he interviewed every alien found to be employed at the power house and found Italians, Greeks, Chinese and Mexicans. All those interviewed, with but one exception, were legally in the United States. In speaking with the Chief of Police of Sparks, he was informed that whenever any of the "Mexicans employed in Sparks were arrested at various times for drunkedness, that they mostly have in their possession Head Tax receipts from this Service showing their entry into the United States" (Ibid,).
Having such Head Tax and other papers showing their legal entry into the United States would seem to satisfy the requirement or demand of the “American" members of the different shops and yards of the railroad that "no man without their Citizen Papers be hired." However, it should be noted that it appears that most alien workers were relegated to common laborer jobs. C.W. Nelson, who, by his own admission, had been one of the railroad workers who had initially written a letter of complaint to Senator Oddie, said that "his complaint had reference to the various classes of unskilled workers" (Ibid.). Nelson believed, erroneously, essentially, that all of the alien workers were in the country illegally. Once he was shown to be in error, as a result of Ferrelly's findings, he withdrew his complaint. Both he and G.L. Ackley of the Brotherhood of Firemen, came to realize that it was necessary to work toward securing legislation which would prevent, even legally, the entry of aliens into the country.
George W. Seal lorn conducted the investigation in Las Vegas and surrounding areas. It also involved extensive interviewing of railroad personnel. J.H. Sinnar, who served as Roundhouse General Foreman at Las Vegas, beginning in the mid 1920s reported, in 1931, that of the "...approximately 152 men working under him; that 57 percent of this number are other than white men, of which number about 22 are negroes" (Seallorn, 1931). Alfred T. Stone who, by 1931, had been employed by the Union Pacific Railroad for seventeen years, recalled that "...a number of aliens, especially Japanese, were employed during the railroad strike of 1923 when it was impossible to get any other help, and these aliens have acquired seniority..." (Ibid.).
The racial composition of the Union Pacific workforce during and including the years before the "crash" is partially attributable to those
aliens' willingness to not only do "that kind of work" but also to their capacity to withstand the brutal heat of Las Vegas' summer seasons. According to some department heads, Americans were less willing to withstand the adverse conditions which were associated with such jobs. However, worsening economic conditions made those "Americans" less choosy.
Apparently, it was partially those worsening economic conditions which had prompted C.W. Nelson and G.L. Ackley to register complaints with Senator Oddie which he, in turn, had forwarded on to President Herbert Hoover in his October 30, 1930 telegraph in which he reported that large numbers of American workers had been laid off their jobs at the railroad centers of Nevada while aliens were yet employed (Oddie: 1930). Oddie beseeched the President to have the Unemployment Commission to investigate and if found to be true, to "recommend to the railroad companies the advisability of adopting some plan which will embrace a readjustment of its system of employment which will give preference to American labor in place of the alien labor now employed" (Ibid.J.
Upon completion of the investigation, the reports were duly filed with the Unemployment Commission. The findings, in both instances, revealed that while there were aliens employed by both the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific, those workers were generally not illegal aliens but were legally in the country. They further revealed that a good majority of those aliens had been in the country and working for the railroad for a half-dozen years or more. Many of them had seniority in their jobs over American citizens. Having such seniority, when earlier lay-offs were made, such lay-offs usually involved those workers who had started work most recently and that usually involved
Americans. Both Scallorn and Farrelly found a great percentage of such aliens among the railroad workers in Nevada as has been noted.
The Census Report of 1910 shows that even as early as that, large numbers of Japanese and Mexicans were part of the railroad workforce. A good percentage of the small number of blacks who resided in southern Nevada in Las Vegas during the first quarter of the Twentieth Century also found employment with the railroad. The railroad was the largest single employer in Las Vegas during those years and, clearly, there was no evidence of racial discrimination in its hiring practices at that time (Census Report: 1910}.
Senator Oddie was greatly disappointed with the conclusions reached by the investigation. While he was satisfied that in both the north and in the south there were found large numbers of alien workers, he was dissatisfied that the Commission had interpreted his complaint to only mean that his concerns were centered around aliens who were in the country illegally. Such was not the case. Senator Oddie was concerned about any alien, legal or otherwise, who had employment while American citizens were out of work (Ibid.). In his letter to Joseph H. Willits, dated January 12, 1931, he explained the nature and the parameters of his complaint first by clarifying that he had never charged that "native workers had been laid off and aliens employed in their places on the railroads in Nevada" (Oddie: 1931), Rather, his request "refers to aliens who have for some time been employed and are now employed by the railroads, with the view of having the railroads replace them with American citizens" (Ibid.). There is no record of a follow-up to his request. However, that heightened awareness might well have been all that was needed to ensure preference in hiring
for Americans on the impending Hoover Dam Project. The fact that blacks were generally not thought of as "Americans", were somehow "different" and were usually, as a group, lumped together with foreigners and aliens, might well have set the stage for the discriminatory practices which appeared, for the first time in Las Vegas' history, with the Hoover Dam Project of the early 19.30s.
As competition for jobs increased on that project, the occasion for discrimination against racial minorities also increased. One method used was that of removing minority competition from the job market. Newspaper reports of the time offer clear distinctions in the treatment of those groups in comparison with others. The editor of the Las Vegas Age suggested that a welfare system for those who were just "waiting at the Colorado River for something in the nature of work to turn up" ("Lend Assistance," 1931 J. Those who waited for work were out of work and were, technically, vagrants. However, only those who were termed "undesirables" were so treated. One such victim was "Allen Carter, colored" who "was arrested on complaint of Clay H. Williams, Union Pacific officer. Carter is alleged to have been trespassing on railroad property without permission" (Ibid.). Carter was released on $250 bond pending his hearing (Ibid.). For the times and the prevailing economic conditions, the bond was exorbitant. A signal was sent to other minority job hopefuls to get out of town if they could not show a visible means of support. Subsequent reports in the local newspapers illustrate the frequency of similar police action toward minority people ("Vag Roundup", 1930; "Three Rum Raids", 1132; "Many Undesirables", 1931).
While minority aspirants were being systematically removed from
competing for jobs on the impending project, local white labor sought to further enhance its chances at securing jobs. Those thousands of newcomers posed threats to Las Vegans who felt that they should have preference in hiring for the jobs that might become available on the project. They sought, through their unions, to incorporate a hiring restriction that employees be "bona fide" citizens of Nevada (Gardett, 1931). A great deal of employment confusion ensued 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, many of those newcomers to the area had fulfilled residency requirements and the great majority of them were indeed veterans (Blood, n.d.).
When the bids for local construction projects and for the preliminary and other work for the dam were let, numerous new jobs were created ("Preliminary Work Underway", 1930). The construction of the road from Las Vegas to the dam site employed 400 men (Ibid.), This added to the number of men who worked in bringing power lines from southern California and, by November of 1930, the Boulder Dam branch of the Union Pacific Railroad which employed a number of Mexican nationals was also under construction (Seallorn, 1931). Additionally, the building of Boulder City and the numerous other supportive jobs which had to be done prior to the actual construction of the dam put many men to work ["Preliminary Work Underway", 1930). It was on these projects that there was some degree of integration of the workforce. Ray Lyman Wilbur pointed out in a report titled: The Hoover Dam Power and Water Contracts and Related Data, that the only integration in effect on the dam project had to do with the
several other projects on the Colorado River such as the construction of the All American Canal in the Imperial Valley (Wilbur & Ely, 1933, p. 8). That statement has significance 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" ("Boulder City", 1932}. Further, as we shall see later, there were no blacks, Native-Americans or Asiatics working on the project through the midway point of 1932 and only a handful of Mexican-Americans and none of them lived in the dormitories of Boulder City. It was "estimated that during the construction period the city contained some 8,000 people" (Reining, 1950, p. 13). Boulder City was built and owned by the government, including housing and the fact that it was an all white city was thus the result of deliberate policy (Ibid.).
There is at least one photograph which shows black workers helping construct the railroad branch to Boulder City. J. H, Sinnar, who had, in 1931, been Roundhouse General Foreman for five years reported "that the general rule was to employ Mexicans and negroes as laborers and similar work and that the other work was usually given to U.S. citizens" (Scallorn, 1931). While it might not have been clear to Sinnar as to whether some portion of that group might have been Mexican-American or Nationals, such uncertanty should not have been the case for negro workers. Yet, by implication, neither of the two are considered U.S. citizens. Ramon Garralaga, who came to Las Vegas in 1930 and remained there for the next thirty-seven years recalls that there were "seven
or eight (Mexican-Americans) who had worked in the mines near Austin,
Nevada, who worked with one crew clearing away brush, digging holes and making a railroad bed" (Garralaga, 1974). He and two other Mexican-Americans, "one of whom was named Guzman, returned to Las Vegas after we finished and tried to get on at the dam" (Ibid.).
Minority people experienced great difficulty in securing employment at every step and level of the Hoover Dam Project. Whites, on the other hand, whether locals or new arrivals, were more fortunate. They were able to secure work even though they had had no previous experience doing that sort of work. They had been farmers, soldiers, salesmen, taxi drivers, movie company gaffers, factory workers and even stockbrokers. Few had any prior experience at building dams. Mr, Joe Kine, a white long-time Boulder City, Nevada resident, recalls that he "had never done that kind of work. From what I could see, nobody had. We just learned as we went along. When I started off they were still digging the tunnels. I worked there for a while. After that I became a high scaler" (Kine, 1975). Kiners memory is supported by many others who worked on the project and continue to make Boulder City their home. No one downplays the rigors and danger of the work. They do, however, agree that they "learned as they went along."
With the exception of the technical jobs, common laborers were used extensively. Even at that, quite a number had little experience at that kind of work. "Experienced only need apply" did not apply to workers interested in work on the dam project. While it may well be true that upon their arrival in 1930-1931, 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.
Confusion continued in regard to the hiring process. Following an investigation in which charges were made that Clark County residents were being denied jobs, T. L. Wilcox, one of the investigators, filed the following report:
With reference to men employed on Boulder Dam, the 8ix Companies are not required by contract or special provision to regard local preference, but can hire citizens of the United States from any state providing veterans are given preference (Blood, n.d.).
By early 1932 the local Chamber of Commerce became involved, although in an unofficial capacity, in the hiring process on the dam project. It attempted to ease some of the pressure on the Labor Office by screening prospective workers and registering them. It did not register "men who had lived here less than one yeai^* C* Chamber Intervenes", 1932). It further reported that it had "checked the references and approved 138 white men and 37 colored men who have been residents a year or longer"(Ibid.). No other racial groups were acknowledged by the Chamber. The Chamber did not become involved in the hiring process until well over two years after the original work was begun. Further, there is no evidence to show that any action was taken based on the recommendations resulting from their screening. It should be further noted that this one reference appeared more than a month after the first blacks were hired on the project.
In addition to the Chamber, the Red Cross also became involved in the process of identifying workers. Perhaps owing to its efforts to assist the new arrivals in securing food and lodgings, It 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 or would not 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" (Pentz, 1932). There is no known record of how many minority aspirants, if indeed any did, partook of those services and 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" (Kleinsorge, 1941). Again, these activities of the local Red Cross coincided with those of the Chamber of Commerce in the actual hiring of black labor on the project.
Perhaps the first of America's minority groups to find employment on the project was Mexican-Americans. Ramon Carralaga was among those who worked on digging the diversion tunnels, "I remember that there were several others (Mexican-AmericansJ 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" (Garralaga, 1974). Carralaga and the other Mexican-Americans lived either in Las Vegas or in McWilliams townsite (Westside) which would, in the next decade, become the location of Las Vegas' black community. He did not remember "any ever staying in the dormitories at Boulder City" (Ibid.).
In conversations and interviews with other workers on the project, who yet reside in southern Nevada, while some do indeed recall some limited "Mexican" involvement in the workforce, none recall any Mexican-American resident of Boulder City during that period or on into the 1970s.
Former Boulder City Commissioner Morgan Sweeney worked as a supervisor at Anderson's Cafeteria in 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 gained that moniker because sometimes a worker, who had a friend who dfd 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 and look at the face above it. 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 differentiate between legitimate workers and imposters, his reply was: "I had a photographic memory. I knew every badge number and every face that belonged to it" [Sweeney, 1975). He did not, however, ever remember seeing a minority person eat in that cafeteria.
The cause of the initial exclusion of black workers was due in large measure to the racial perceptions of the Labor Office Director. He maintained 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 unnecessary expense (Kluger, 1970,.P- 205).
Even thoygh an attempt had been made as early as 1909, there had been no segregation in housing in Las Vegas before the advent of the dam project (Bracken, 1909). Further, by the time the dam project got underway, white families.were standing in soup lines, doing without, being evicted and having their hopes dashed. Men were riding the rails, living in hobo camps, panhandling 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 approve of the complexion of a co-worker. Apparently, Leonard Blood allowed his own bigotry to interfere with the execution of his position.
Blood and the Six Companies, the conglomerate which had been awarded the contract for all phases of the actual construction of the dam, by their refusal to hire minority workers on a federal project which was financed by federal funds, gives clear evidence of the need for antidiscrimination laws applying to employment even at that time. Their prejudice caused undue hardship for minority groups who either were locals or who came to southern Nevada in search of work as did others.
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 union"("Typical Worker", 1932). 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.
The Hoover Dam project was one of the first salves used to soothe the wounds of many who had been mauled by the "crash." All those thousands who came to southern Nevada in search of jobs well expected that they would at least have an opportunity to work. Upon their arrival and seeing the numbers of others who had also come in search of jobs they were able to determine that only a fraction of them would indeed be hired. They remained, living however they could, with the hope that "they" would be hired and that it would be the "other fellow" who would not. It was a gamble but they all took it. Minorities, however, found that the deck was stacked against them. Even though they were as desperate as the others, they were removed from the job pool simply because of the color of their skin.
Minorities, especially blacks, took exception to the hiring status quo. From the outset, charges were 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. Arthur McCants, who would later reorganize the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP said: "When the call to arms came in the Great War our government called for American citizens, regardless of color. Many of them are unable to obtain work where even foreigners are being employed^ O'Dall To Arms", 19321.
Discrimination in the hiring on the project prompted black aspiring workers to organize. They formed the Colored Citizens Labor Protective Association in late 1931 and over the next year and a half they sought to change not only the minds of white Las Vegans but
the hiring practices of the Labor Office as well. 0.8. Allbritton,
one of the officers of the Association, wrote the following letter to
the editor of a local newspaper:
...There have been since the creation of this association many, many colored over sea soldiers and citizens have applied in person, with their discharge papers, for work on the Hoover Dam Project, we sent a delegation in request; we enrolled in various agencies, and we called on Mr. Crow, general supt. The answers were: We have no provisions, I don't know. We now appeal to the just and fairminded citizens. First to the Las Vegans, to the various Congressmen, and to the press, for assistance. The leaders of the association are law abiding citizens; standing for justice. Is it patriotic for the white community to stand by and see the eagle torn down from its lofty perch and the flag used as a dish rag? Union and liberty are inseparable. The colored man isn't a traitor to his country. The association thanks all who lend a hand to break down such activities ["Colored Organization", 1932). (sic.)
Two weeks later, J.P. Liddell, also a member of the Association, wrote
a letter to the editor. As with Allbritton, he sought to bring the plight of the black job hopeful to the attention of the public.
All races of people are divided into classes. These classes ranges from the highest to the lowest scale of civilization to to which the race has developed. The object of the Colored Labor Protective Association is make itself a harmonious joint in the congruity of political economy. The fitness, if recognized, must be based upon the Constitution of the United States and not upon obsolete methods of bigots of past ages. We ask the superior minds of the white race for protection of life and liberty and a chance 'to breathe and be a man'. This association, an intelligent and humble part of this community, pledges itself to be dependable and honorable. We ask for advise and aid from those of superior intelligence from the white as well as the negro race ("All Races Of People', 1932).
The hoped for changes in hiring practices did not occur. While blacks waited for an opportunity to make a living, by comparison, whites were making a killing. Over the following several months, blacks were relentless in their efforts to bring about change but to no avail. The local office of the NAACP established contact with the national office who sent Field Secretary William Pickens to Las Vegas both to investigate
conditions and to make an appeal to the local labor office to alter its hiring practices. He spoke at the Majestic Theatre on the night of April 14 at 8:00 pm. The Review Journal reported on the event.
Pickins wasted no words on the subject, and exhorted all colored voters to remember this fact: "Hoover and the Interior Department's failure to provide for the employment of blacks on the Boulder Dam Project, when it came time to register their choice in the fall." "If we're not good enough to work on the Boulder Dam project, we're not good enough to vote for President Hoover", he declared dramatically. "There are twelve million colored voters in the United States and we're getting organized. We'll wield plenty of power next election. We were powerful enough to stop the confirmation of Judge Parker as United States Supreme Court Judge, and we can defeat President Hoover ("NAACP Leader Speaks", 1932).
Pickins' journey to Las Vegas did not bring about the desired results. He returned less than a month later. His May visit was highlighted by an open meeting in which several prominent white Las Vegans were in attendance. Among them were Nye Wilson, Mayor Ernie Cragin and Leonard Blood of the Labor Office. Pickins' address to the group extolled the contributions minorities had made in the historical development of the nation ("Speaker Extols Contributions",.'1932). Due to his determination and that of Arthur McCants of the local chapter of the NAACP, O.B. Albritton of the Colored Citizens Labor Protective Association and others, additional pressure was brought to bear on the issue of minority hiring on the dam project. In a meeting between the above mentioned, representatives of the Six Companies, Senator Tasker L. Oddie and Secretary Lyman Wilbur of the Interior Department, it was finally decided that there would be "no further discrimination against the employment of Colored labor on the Hoover Dam" ("No Further Discrimination", 1932). By this time the project had been underway for almost two and a half years.
The Las Vegas 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" ("No Further Discrimination, 1932). 1932). By inference, it suggested that black labor would be given preferential treatment when, in fact, white labor had been given preferential treatment from the very start. 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 immediated- ly 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" (Ibid.). As stated earlier, in this paper, no such prior experience had .been prerequisite for white workers on the project.
Two and a half years after the project had been underway and in light of the constant turnover of workers, there was an abundance of white ex-dam workers who would have more experience than would minority hopefuls ("Turnover Rate High", 1931). Under those circumstances those minority members without experience, because of prior exclusionary practices, 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 on the project ("First Blacks Hired", 1932). Two months later the first Native-Americans were hired. They were not local but Apaches from Arizona. The Las Vegas 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 Dam"("Apache High Scalers", 1932). While highscaling was indeed dangerous, it was the glamour work of the project; the hero in Zane Grey's novel, Boulder Dam was a highscaler. Of those Apaches, the newspaper
reported 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 of Arizona" (Ibid.).
Blacks had found it necessary to petition time and again in search of employment opportunities on the dam; similarly 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 several times in their behalf, working in cooperation with construction engineer Walker R. Young"(Ibid.).
For the duration of its construction, only a handful of minority people were permitted to work on the dam project. No Asian-Americans held any positions, due to a restriction in the contract, and those other minority group members who were fortunate enough to secure employment were left to their own devices in obtaining housing. The dam project did indeed do much to alleviate some of the economic hardships of the country. It provided work not only in southern Nevada but in other parts of the country as well. All of the equipment and materials, with the exception of sand and gravel, were manufactured elsewhere. For every wheelbarrow, hammer, nut, bolt, foot of rail or wire, turbine, generator, truck and from work clothes to the food consumed by the workers, someone in another part of the country was put to work. In spite of all this, minority people were forced to do without work on the project until it was nearly a third completed.
The Hoover Dam project of the 1930s greatly changed Las Vegas. Not all of the changes were positive. Race relations deteriorated. In the first twenty-five years of its history, the different races had
lived together in relative harmony. The population of the town had remained small during those years and the collective racial minority population (Indians, Mexicans, Blacks and Asiatics) never exceeded ten percent. The different races worked together in the mining districts and with the railroad. Whatever housing restrictions there might have been was limited to wealth. There was no segregation in the schools and there were minority people who owned ranches in the outlying areas. The flood of newcomers who arrived because of the dam project, escalating economic deprivations and the transplanting of racial animosities from other regions of the country by those newcomers all aided in bringing about the negative change in the racial climate of southern Nevada and primed it for the segregationist trends which would become more evident in the 1940s and continue on through the 1960s until the adoption of a "Minority Hiring Plan" and an Open Housing law, both in 1971.
The Hoover Dam project was indeed the turning point for race
relations in southern Nevada.
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