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"Blacks and the Boulder Dam Project": manuscript by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1970 (year approximate) to 1996 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Unpublished manuscripts file. Published manuscript, Nevada Historical Society.

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man000942. 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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Blacks and the Boulder Dam Project
Roosevelt Fitzgerald —
In the years 1930 and 1931, the United States moved ever deeper into the throes of the worst depression in its history. At the same time, however, the small city of Las Vegas not only experienced a period of expansion and prosperity, but also inexorably moved into a transition period in its history which laid the groundwork for the emergence of an entirely new basis for its economic development.
The Boulder Dam Project, begun in late 1930, was the key to this economic boom. Although there were other areas in the country which managed to avoid the worst hardships of the Great Depression, southern Nevada was among the most conspicuous.1 By the time the actual construction of the dam itself started in 1931, approximately seven million Americans were out of work (the figure would continue to increase), and those who remained employed generally were earning less and less. Many of the unemployed attempted to follow up leads (and rumors) of work available. When Congress actually appropriated funds for the Boulder Dam Project, interest in southern Nevada increased; as the depression worsened and the various construction projects got underway this interest quickened. Over a year and one-half before work on the dam started, letters of inquiry were arriving.2 3 Local newspapers were reporting on the deluge of prospective workers arriving, and the attendant housing problems, in late 1930 and early 1931?
1 Brief accounts of the Boulder Dam Project and its economic impact on the Clark County area axe to be found in Russell Elliott, History of Nevada (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973), pp. 275—277; James Hulse, The Nevada Adventure (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1978), pp. 226^229; C. Gregory Crampton, The Complete Las Vegas (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1976), pp. 45—51. A standard account is Paul L. Kleinsorge, The Boulder Canyon Project (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1941).
2 Las Vegas Age, January 2, 1930, p. 2.
3 Kleinsorge, p. 301.
4 Telegram from H. C. Gardett to Leonard Blood, July 9,1931; Blood File, Special Collections
Department, Dickinson Library, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Local labor groups were concerned about job protection for Las Vegans Crafts in the city were unionized and therefore had some protection against outsiders, and they urged that men hired by the Six Companies, Incorporated be “bona fide” citizens of Nevada.4 * The project would bring about
256 Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
major changes in terms of the labor market in the entire area; not only would thousands of new jobs be created, but also there would be acute competition for the available jobs because of the influx of outsiders.
Unfortunately, a portion of the local labor market was not even considered: the Black residents of Las Vegas. Numbering 143 out of a population of 5,165 in 1930, according to Bureau of the Census figures, Blacks generally could not become union members in a union-oriented city. It appears from the evidence available that discriminatory hiring practices were followed from the very beginnings of the project. Local Blacks responded by forming the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas on May 5, 1931. This group reportedly had 247 members as early as September, 1931, thus indicating a rapid increase in the number of Blacks in the immediate area. Nye Wilson, the Secretary of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, spoke before the group on September 18,1931:
Wilson gave a brief outline of the unemployment situation in Las Vegas, suggested means of alleviating much of the suffering, told of charitable organization work, and stressed the need of organization among the labor groups to aid in combating the situation?
In December of the same year, at an open meeting in which Blacks discussed their plight, the following was reported in a local newspaper:
Specific instances were cited by various speakers in which building programs and construction work was under progress with no Negro labor whatsoever. It was charged that on some of these jobs there were foreigners working while Negro American citizens were denied employment.6
6 Las Vegas Age, September 19,1931, p. 1.
6 Ibid., December 19,1931, p. 3.
T Ibid.
8 Kleinsorge, p. 204.
It was charged that while Blacks were expected to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens of the United States, their rights as citizens were ignored and not protected: “When the call to arms came in the Great War our government called for American citizens, regardless of color. There are many ex- servicemen among the local Negro settlement. Many of them are unable to obtain work.”7 8
The Six Companies, however, did not feel obligated to function with any limitations on hiring, except for the restriction against Mongolians.® Following an investigation in which charges that Clark County residents were being denied jobs, a report was filed by investigator T. L. Wilcox:
With reference to men employed on Boulder Dam, the Six Companies are not
Notes and Documents
257 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.9
9 "Investigation Regarding Discrimination Against Clark County Residents,” Blood File.
10 Las Vegas Age, December 20,1931, p. 5; Las Vegas Evening Review Journal, January 8, 1932, p. 4; Kleinsorge, p. 301.
11 Author’s interview with Mr. Joe Kine, December 2, 1975, in Boulder City.
12 Las Vegas Age, January 7, 1932, p. 2.
In spite of any alleged protective devices, local Blacks received no benefit in the form of jobs. The early stages of the dam construction centered on the diversion of the waters of the Colorado River through man-made tunnels. Local newspapers reported that between 1,139 and 1,350 men were at work on these tunnels by late 1931 and early 1932.10 The work involved some blasting, but primarily consisted of excavation. Common laborers were used exclusively, since only minimal skills were required. Mr. Joe Line, a long-time resident of Boulder City, had this to say about his background in construction before coming to Nevada:
I came to Nevada in 1931 from Missouri. I was looking for work just like everybody else. At that time people were living in tents out here at the dam. I went out there and went to work. I had never done this kind of work before. 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 awhile. After that I became a high scaler and that’s what I did until I retired in 1974.11
When the question of “experience” is considered, it is apparent that the matter of whether the worker was a Black or a white was far more decisive in obtaining employment. O. B. Allbritton, a member of the CCLPA, in a letter written to the Las Vegas Age stated that “There have been since the creation of this association many, many colored overseas soldiers and citizens who have applied in person, with their discharge papers, for work on the Hoover Dam Project...” and he reported all such applications had been denied:
The answers were: We have no provisions; I don’t know. We now appeal to die 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 on the part of the white community to stand by and see the eagle tom down from its lofty perch and the flag used as a dish-rag? ‘Union and liberty are inseparable.’12
Two weeks later, the January 20 issue of the Las Vegas Age carried yet another letter written by a member of the CCLPA, J. P. Liddell, who
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
stressed the “harmonious” purposes of the organization, asked that “ability to meet the requirements in demand” should be the hiring test, and emphasized the need of putting into practice the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.18 But the same newspaper on February 3 printed a telling description of the anticipated work force:
13 Ibid., January 20,1932, p. 2.
14 Ibid., February 3,1932, p. 8.
13 Ibid., May 11,1932, p. 2.
13 Ibid., June 18,1932, p. 4.
” Ibid.
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 bom, and representing every state in the union.13 14 *
Efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People focused some attention on the hiring situation at the Project. William Pickins, Field Secretary of the NAACP, investigated on more than one occasion. His visit in May, 1932, led to an open meeting attended by some influential whites—Nye Wilson, Mayor Ernie Cragin, and Leonard Blood. Pickins’ address extolled the contributions Blacks had made in the historical development of the United States; once again, the thrust of a meeting was to indicate to white members of the community that Blacks were citizens of both the community and the nation, and their rights should be protected.16
The position of the Six Companies remained unchanged, however. W. A. Bechtel, its President, seemed to be using the “experience” excuse as a full-fledged reason for not hiring Blacks. In presenting an explanation for the absence of Blacks, he stated “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.”18 It does seem evident, however, that Blacks were being required to have experience and whites were not; in addition, Mr. Bechtel was either not cognizant of the absence of Blacks from the work force, or it did not matter to him. At a meeting between representatives of the NCAAP, the CCLPA, representatives of the Six Companies, Senator Tasker Oddie, and Senator Wilbur of the Department of Interior, it was agreed that there would be “no further discrimination against the employment of Colored labor on the Hoover Dam.”17 Thus it was finally admitted that discrimination had been practised in hiring. ""
Walter White, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, in writing to
Notes and Documents
Arthur McCrants, the President of the local chapter of the NAACP, said that he had been notified by Secretary Wilbur that "When additions to the force are made the company will arrange to give employment to Negro labor.”18 The comment “When additions to the force are made ...' deserves discussion, since additions were being made constantly. During the first year of construction on the project, thousands of men had been employed, and there was a constant turnover in the labor force. Thousands of different men appeared on the roster of workers. An example of He high rate of change may be shown by reference to just one month: “During the first fifteen days of December the labor turnover averaged thirteen per day . . . There were three-hundred thirty-nine men hired during this period.”1* None of those hired were Black, and that trend generally continued.
« Ibid.
1# Ibid., December 20,1931, p. 5.
2° Ibid., August 23,1932, p. 1.
21 Statement in the Blood File.
22 James Huger, “Elwood Mead, Irrigation Engineer and Social Planner” (Ph D dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970), p. 205. '
Quite a bit of confusion existed in the entire hiring process. Preference was to be given to Nevada residents who were also veterans, but newcomers to the area quickly fulfilled residency requirements. The local Chamber of Commerce became involved in a program of identification. It stated that it registering men who have lived here less than one year,” and that it had “checked the references and approved of 138 white men and 37 colored men who have been residents a year and longer.”20 According to this tabulation there were a total of 175 men who were bonafide residents who had been checked. Whether the Chamber’s report was exhaustive or all-inclusive is not very important; what is important is the consideration that such a small number of local Blacks should not have presented a problem as far as employment was concerned, had not discrimination been the policy. With over 4000 workers needed, it would appear that the 37 Blacks who qualified would have had at least some representation on the work force from the very beginning. But the hiring practices of the local office of the Nevada Office of Labor in Las Vegas must be considered. Mr. Leonard Blood, Deputy Director of that agency on the state level, suggested Blacks should not be hired on the project because their presence would cause tension with the white workers.21 22 In addition, he thought there would be “difficulties of housing and feeding ‘colored labor’ and the cost of providing separate facilities for them... .”a2
Approximately a month after the June meeting at which the promise was made to end discrimination on the project, the first 10 Blacks were hired at the Hoover Dam construction site. The percentage of Blacks in the work
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force was miniscule, but the impression created in the newspapers suggested the contrary:
The Colored people of Las Vegas have made a persistent campaign to obtain the just treatment in this matter which the Constitution of the United States guarantees to them. When the matter finally came to the attention of the Secretary of the Interior through the National Bar Association measures were taken to assure the Colored people of their just proportion of the work on this project It is gratifying, not alone to the people of African descent, but to all lovers of fair play that this question of Negro labor on Hoover Dam has been settled with justice and fairness.* 38
38 Las Vegas Age, July 8,1932, p. 4.
34 Blood to Royal, September 3, 1932, Blood File.
28 Kluger, p. 205.
38 Ibid.; Kleinsorge, p. 301.
27 Las Vegas Age, April 26, 1935, p. 12.
By September, the local labor office reported there were twenty-five Blacks working on the dam at that point34 In the later months and years of work on the project the number of Blacks allowed to work on the project fluctuated, but always remained infinitesimal in terms of the total number of workers employed. About one year later, for example, "... a report by Mead revealed that 65 had been hired, mostly for road work."38 The total work force, which was only 1300 in the late summer of 1931, grew to 4,200 by April, 1932, and then peaked at 5,251 in July, 1934. By the spring of that year, there were 11 Blacks on the work force.38
Despite the lack of opportunity for economic advancement by means of fair and consistent employment practices on the dam project, these were by no means wasted or lost years for the Black community of Las Vegas. Blacks in Clark County became better organized and more vocal in the assertion of their rights than ever before; evidence of this is to be found in the organization of a separate VFW post, the CCLPA, and a local chapter of the NAACP, and other groups, some political in their orientation. Eventually, local whites modified to some extent their perceptions of Blacks; for example, during the 1935 mayoralty campaign in Las Vegas, the winning candidate, Leonard Arnett, appealed to local Black organizations for their support, and the Las Vegas Age reports his request was answered.37
Blacks continued their fight for jobs on the project throughout the duration of the construction of the dam. But the evidence is clear that results were meagre, although after pressure was applied token gestures were made. In this respect, then, even the New Deal itself, as it operated in Nevada on the Boulder Dam Project, proved to be virtually the same “old deal” for Blacks.