Though not well known among Nevadans of European descent during his lifetime, and largely forgotten by historians until the 1970s, Thomas Detter was a prominent member of western African-American society. He wrote numerous letters to California's African-American newspapers, and he was asked to give speeches in a variety of locales. Most of the residents of Elko and Eureka, Nevada, though, would know him as a prominent African-American businessman—a barber and proprietor of barber shops and "bathing establishments.
Detter was born in either 1827 or 1831 and was raised in Washington, D.C. as the son of a free black stonemason. By his own account, he received a "limited" education—schools for free blacks operated in Washington at the time—but it is clear from the quality of his later writings that he continued his education on his own.
At some point, Detter received training as a barber, and after he arrived by ship in San Francisco in 1852, he headed to the Sacramento area and initiated a pattern of moving to active mining areas in the West and setting up barbershop businesses. He lived in California until 1859 and operated at least one barbershop there (although the details are not known). Detter then moved to Lewiston, Idaho, where he lived until 1863, then moved to Bannock City, Idaho until 1864. He spent two years in Walla Walla, Washington Territory and another two years in Idaho City. In March of 1869, Detter moved to Elko, Nevada, and began a fourteen-year stay in eastern Nevada.
It is clear from this pattern of movement that Detter was following mining booms throughout the region. His move to Idaho coincides with the 1860s gold rush in that area, and his move to Elko in 1869 coincides with the decline of Idaho mining and the early boom years of the city of Elko. His move to Eureka in 1871 coincides with its peak years when it was Nevada's second most populous city. Detter tried his hand at mining; from Elko, he wrote, "I see men from there daily, who say it is the place for the boys to make a scratch, but I hardly think I'll take any of it in mine at present. I have been struggling long and hard to make it stick; it is up one side and down the other with me."
It seems Detter wisely chose to profit from the booming male populations of these cities, and, at least in Nevada, he was quite successful. He paid $312 in gold coin for property in Eureka shortly after moving there. He purchased another lot on another occasion and sold it for a $660 profit.
Like W.C.H. Stephenson in Virginia City, Detter's education and relative prosperity catapulted him into a spokesman-like role for the small African-American community in eastern Nevada. 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, writing in 1868 that "if Congress has the power to declare us citizens, it should have secured to us the same rights and immunities that others enjoy I say we are American citizens with no political rights . We are freemen and still oppressed in our native land." And, in 1870, he elaborated on the legacy of slavery in a letter to the Pacific Appeal:
"I admit that slavery is a dead issue, and can never be resurrected to life again But, sir, who can deny that its wicked spirit still haunts us by day and by night? Everywhere we see the hideous form of American prejudice — the offspring of slavery, the twin of tyranny . Let us teach our children to hate tyranny and oppression, and to love liberty's honored name. Slavery's curse still rests upon us. We are yet the subjects of what seems to be an unrelenting prejudice."
Mirroring the African-American community at large, the tenor of Detter's writings and speeches went from bold and hopeful assertions of racial equality in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, to gradual discouragement as the promises of the earlier years began to fade. Although his spirits were buoyed briefly by the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1875, we do not know his reaction to its weak enforcement and its eventual dismissal by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. It is fair to assume that, like his counterparts, his discouragement would have hit new lows.
Detter left Eureka sometime in 1883. In 1884, he sold his Eureka house to his wife, and his signature was notarized in New Orleans, Louisiana. Although we do not know Detter's reasons for leaving Eureka, one could speculate that is in keeping with his past behavior. Eureka's mining fortunes declined precipitously after 1881; as before, perhaps Detter was off to seek excitement and greener pastures. New Orleans' vibrant African-American community would certainly have provided this.