Monday, August 1, 2011

Hoover Dam Stories: African American Workers

The start of construction on the dam in 1930 held the promise of employment for thousands of workers many of whom had relocated to the desert in hopes of finding work. With the nation enduring a crippling economic depression, the project looked like a life saver. For African American and other minority citizens, however, the situation remained bleak. The U.S. government's contract with Six Companies stipulated that American citizens be hired for the job.  The term American citizen, however, came to be defined as white American citizen. 

In May, 1931 the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas complained that none of the first 1000 workers on Six Companies payroll for the dam project were African American. Officials contended that Six Companies had not hired African American workers for fear of causing racial strife among the work crews. Under mounting pressure from the newly elected Roosevelt administration, Six Companies promised an increase in the number of black workers hired. Still, by 1933 only 24 African American workers had been hired.
 
African American were the only minority group not allowed to live in Boulder City, the “model community” that had been established by the US government for dam workers. They traveled on segregated buses, 30 miles to work each day and were returned to their homes in the slums of West Las Vegas each night. They were relegated to working in the Arizona gravel pits, the hottest spot on the entire job site and were forced to drink from separate water buckets while on the job.



In the years I have been doing research on the building of the Hoover Dam, the picture above is the only one I’ve come across that was taken of African American workers.  Taken by Ben Glaha, a photographer hired by the US government to document the building of the dam, it was never used in official government publications.  It is believed that the photo was taken in the event that the government had to prove fair hiring practices.

In my upcoming novel, Ragtown, you will meet several men on my fictional African American crew. Their contribution to the building of the dam while enduring the harsh conditions and racist attitudes that surrounded them is not forgotten.

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