Dr. W. H. C. Stephenson (1825–18??) was northern Nevada's most prominent African-American citizen in the nineteenth century. One of Virginia City's few African-American professionals, Stephenson served as the unofficial spokesperson for northern Nevada's African-American community in the 1860s and was involved in numerous efforts to improve conditions for African-Americans in Nevada.
Stephenson was born in 1825 in Washington, DC. His exact date of arrival in the West is unknown, but he sent letters to a newspaper from Sacramento and Marysville, California, in 1862. He arrived in Virginia City in 1863 and is listed in the city directory as a laundry worker. In December 1863, his name appears in notes of a meeting of African-American citizens in Virginia City, Nevada, where he resided until at least 1870.
Stephenson set up a medical practice in Virginia City. Typically, health care services in the United States were segregated at this time, and, undoubtedly, Stephenson served as the physician for the city's African-American residents, although he reports having served white patients as well. Apparently, his medical practice was successful—he was one of only five African-Americans in Nevada to report a net worth over $2,000 in the 1860s.
As was common in the Reconstruction era and after, Stephenson's professional status catapulted him into a leadership role within the city's African-American population. Although numbering only ninety-five in 1870, Storey County's African-American residents tended to adopt the optimism of the Reconstruction era in the United States, and Stephenson expressed this optimism in a number of passionate and eloquent writings and speeches. In June 1865, for example, Stephenson was appointed chairman of the Nevada Executive Committee, an organization whose stated 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."
At a celebration of the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1866, Stephenson expressed both optimism and determination to make the promises of the Reconstruction era real: "The prospect of our oppressed race is a glorious future. It is for colored men to show themselves equal to the emergency—to fearlessly meet the opponents of justice, and contend for rights and privileges which might withholds from them Let colored men contend for 'Equality before the Law.' Nothing short of civil and political rights."
Stephenson wrote stinging letters protesting the prohibition against African-American testimony in civil cases and the lack of public schools for children of color in Virginia City. After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, he urged African-American citizens to use the vote to win concessions. Records show that Stephenson registered to vote in 1870 and that one white resident refused to sign under him, a refusal that elicited a stinging rebuke in the Territorial Enterprise.
In 1870, reports suggest that Stephenson nearly killed a man with an inappropriate prescription. He disappeared from the Virginia City records soon thereafter, although it is not know whether or not this incident was responsible. His wife, Jane Stephenson, continued to live and work as a hairdresser in Virginia City until at least 1875.
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