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Detter’s fight for equality should be remembered

Black History Month came and went with the usual fitting tributes to iconic African-American leaders.

From Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the black experience in America has no shortage of historical figures. Their stories and struggles are well-known, and rightly so.

But what is rarely discussed, and to my mind far less appreciated, are the contributions African-Americans made to early Nevada as the territory and young state struggled — often against the march of progress — to become a civilized place to live for all races.

Thomas Detter’s name should be better known.

Born around 1830 probably in Maryland (a precise date and place of birth are unclear), Detter managed to acquire an education at a time when teaching slaves to read and write was illegal in Southern states and their attendance in public schools was banned in the North. In the District of Columbia, the laws were more lenient.

“In any case, he was not just literate but also highly articulate when he arrived in the West, and this fact contributed to his ability to be a leader of the black community,” University of Nevada political historian Elmer Rusco wrote in his 1975 book “‘Good Time Coming?’ Black Nevadans in the Nineteenth Century.”

Detter came West in 1852 and arrived in San Francisco, and later recalled that “all was tumult and bustle” and “crime was bold and defiant. … Little did many of us contemplate the reverses and misfortunes California had in reserve for us.”

From Detter’s many published letters, speeches and book come these observations on the black experience just after the end of the Civil War through the 1870 passage of the 15th Amendment, which granted African-American men the right to vote.

“No man is a citizen in its true meaning who is deprived the right of the ballot,” he said in observing that the 1866 Civil Rights Act lacked that provision. “… If Congress has the power to declare us citizens, it should have secured to use the same rights and immunities that others enjoy. … I say we are American citizens with no political rights — natives, and are treated worse than alien soldiers, and we receive not the honor of soldiers. … We are Freemen and still oppressed in our native land. Slavery is fallen, but it is not dead. … Our freedom is not complete until we have equal justice with our white fellow citizens.”

Although Detter received training as a barber and traveled through several states, writing letters from California and Idaho where he was occasionally known to sell “T. Detter’s Cough Tonic,” he was an early resident of Elko. He observed in 1869 that, “it has sprung into existence as if by magic. Six weeks ago there was not a half dozen houses here, now there are nearly three thousand tenements, built mostly of canvas” with “whisky mills and restaurants as thick as fleas on a dog’s back.” He also noted there were 10 brothels “where the disconsolate congregate to while away their leisure hours, and gaze upon the fair but frail daughters of Eve.”

While residing in Elko, Detter published the book, “Nellie Brown: or the Jealous Wife.” Although the book did not sell well, it was a reminder that Detter was a lettered fellow who was a more than capable public speaker whether the topic was local business or the plight of the rights of African-Americans in the region.

It’s little surprise that job opportunities weren’t plentiful for blacks in early Nevada, and Rusco noted that incidents of racism sometimes ebbed and flowed with the boom and bust cycles of the silver and gold mining camps. But Detter, who left Nevada in the early 1880s after more than a dozen years, never stopped speaking up on behalf of his people.

The Online Nevada Encyclopedia’s citation offers, “He gave a number of public speeches and wrote numerous letters to newspapers to advocate for civil rights for African-Americans. In these writings, he showed himself to be a remarkably articulate advocate for civil rights. Echoing a theme invoked by Frederick Douglass and a number of other African-American orators, Detter often wrote or spoke of the gap between expressed American ideals and racial inequality.”

Whether standing up for black Americans or recounting the latest boom town excitement, Thomas Detter’s ride through Nevada history is well worth remembering.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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