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February 25, 2011

When most people think about the history of Nevada, they think about mobsters, casinos and showgirls. Most people don’t realize that Nevada has an interesting and impressive African American history. We might be familiar with some people who helped advance civil rights in Nevada, like Mable Hoggard, H.P. Fitzgerald, Ruby Duncan and Charles West. Before these leaders, however, there were others who started the fight for civil rights, including Dr. W.H.C. Stephenson, the first African American doctor on record in Nevada.

African Americans came to Nevada before it officially became a state. Like thousands of others, they were attempting to make it rich off the famous Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada.

Dr. W.H. C. Stephenson was among those who saw great opportunities in Nevada. Stephenson was born around 1820 or 1825 in Washington, D.C. Although the exact date of his arrival in Nevada is unknown, he was listed in the city directory in 1863. Dr. Stephenson set up a medical practice in Virginia City to serve the African American community, and may have also had several white patients as well. He was one of five of the most affluent African Americans in Nevada at the time, with a net worth of over $2,500.

Due to his prominent status, he naturally became a leader for the African American community, which was still fewer than 100 people in the entire state. In 1865 Stephenson was elected chairman of the Nevada Executive Committee, an organization whose mission was "to take steps to petition the next Legislature for the Right of Suffrage and equal rights before the Law to all the Colored Citizens of the State of Nevada.” (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998). He registered to vote in Virginia City in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was ratified, which prohibits denying a citizen the right to vote based on their "race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Dr. Stephenson advocated for the rights of African Americans to fully participate as citizens through petitions that addressed access to public education and the ability to testify in a trial.

Some time in the late 1870’s it was said that Dr. Stephenson almost killed a man by prescribing the wrong medication. After this, his name does not appear on any records in Nevada, and he was never seen. His wife continued to reside in Nevada and worked as a hairdresser until at least 1875.

Dr. Stephenson is one of many African Americans who helped shine the light on the great injustices that were occurring long ago in our state. To these original activists who helped pave the road for civil rights, we say thank you. We will continue to make sure their fights and struggles were not in vain.

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