Moving from Louisiana to Hawthorne to ensure stable employment for his family, Manuel Gray with wife, Tamer and his family would settle into Mineral County, calling it home for many generations.
Here, Manuel would find employment at the Naval Ammunition Depot in 1945. Tamer would be a housewife, like so many women of her generation.
Growing up in Babbitt was a great experience for Clydell (Gray) Wert, daughter of Manuel and Tamer. Even though Babbitt was segregated at the time. (27th – 30th Streets were mostly populated with Africian American’s) – the children of Babbitt knew no color.
Running through the small Navy owned town, Clydell would have white friends at her home and visa versa. Together, they would ride the bus into school, where side by side they learned reading, writing and arithmetic. Color was not seen. People were known for who they were. Friendships and life long bonds were made.
But at the Naval Ammunition Depot and at businesses in town, lines were clearly drawn.
The arrival of African Americans personnel at the base did not happen until World War II because of the prejudice of Captain F.A. L. Vosseler. In 1942 the Navy sent contemplated sending 650 “negro” recruits to this area from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. The commanding officer objected and with this protest, the bureau did not assign any Negros to the Naval Ammunition Depot.
After the transfer of Vosseler and World War II quickly winding down, several hundred African Americans came to the Hawthorne/Babbitt area. Personnel records from the time show that of the 1,968 employees, 467 were none white (which included Indians). In 1950, 282 African Americans called Mineral County home and it increased until 1970.
Clydell recalls her childhood in Babbitt, knowing that any eating establishment was segregated, but as a child, her and her friends who go to the soda fountain at Johnson’s Pharmacy located in Babbitt. Clearly divided by two fingers, one white (pointing to where only whites could sit and eat) – one black (where only blacks could sit and eat), her and friends, would take joy in turning the fingers around; sitting back and laughing at the commotion it caused.
In his home, Manuel never spoke of the troubles at work around the children. The promotions that were overlooked; the mistreatment of employees or the disrespect that blacks were subjected to at eatery’s. But these establishments weren’t the only ones to refuse service. It wasn’t until she was older and married to Oliver Wert, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the Solomon Islands and Kwajalein in the South Pacific for thirty-one months, that the blaring differences were clearly visible. Oliver stated in historical notes that, “Almost all Hawthorne businesses except grocery, drug and liquor stores refused to accept black customers.”
Tired of the treatment that his co-workers and neighbors were receiving, Manuel organized a meeting and formed the Hawthorne NAACP regarding the discrimination. “The purpose of the first meetings was to discuss the request that all persons be served in those food and drink establishments which presently do not cater to all races.” According to minutes from said meeting.
Civil Rights battles continued with restaurants around town, mainly the El Capitan and Home Café, where blacks were either passed a note “Your Invitation to be in our El Capitan Club and Lodge, is revoked. We request that you leave the premises at once. The Management” or in instances at the Home Café, where prices were raised so high on a menu for only blacks, that no one could afford to eat the food. On this handwritten menu, a cup of coffee was $12.50 per cup.
The Mineral County Commissioners were asked to support the Civil Rights cause. District Attorney L.E. Blaisdell advised the Commission that it had no authority to enact an antidiscrimination ordinance.
After many incidents, some including representatives from the governor’s office, talks began to break down the barriers. Pickets and prayer meetings were held in Hawthorne, with locals; travelers from Nevada and California and officials from NAACP.
The Hawthorne NAACP became officially chartered in Hawthorne on May 22, 1955. It was one of the three major braches, with Las Vegas and Reno as the other two in Nevada.
After many years and tears, the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and businesses in Hawthorne immediately abandoned their practices.
In an article in the Mineral County Independent-News, Otis Gray, then president of the Hawthorne NAACP, wrote:, “To those who said there would be trouble when public accommodations in this locality were open to all, we are proud to say that there has not been one single incident that has happened to bring about ill-feeling between the races in this town, nor do we or the law enforcement agencies expect any.”
As for Clydell, as hard as she tried to get into the El Capitan, once the barriers were lifted, she didn’t go into there to eat until almost a year later. “I was used to not going there to eat, so it was no change.”
As active as the NAACP had been in helping overcome issues, they disbanded in 1999. Even though they are no longer with the community, leading members are still present and the fights they had to overcoming the color blindness in Hawthorne leads to where we are today.
Locally, there are many first’s for blacks in our community. Besides Manuel Gray, being the founder of the Hawthorne NAACP; Janet Jones was the first black student to run for Miss Mineral County as was first runner-up; Barbara Harnage was the first black woman to hold the District and State offices of School Board President from Mineral County and Oliver L. Wert was the first black man to be appointed by the Governor of Nevada to represent Mineral County on the CETA board and NAACP President.
History is not always glamorous, it’s not always pleasant but as Clydell states, “It was time to set it right.”