William Bird

William Bird was a prominent member of Virginia City's African American community during the Comstock era. A barber by profession, Bird was active in the mining district—he even staged an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1870.

Born in Ohio in 1822, Bird first appears in the 1860 census of population. At that time, he and his wife, Louisa, shared a residence with two male barbers (both listed as “mulatto”). Bird was one of only seven African Americans in Virginia City and only forty-four in the area that became Nevada (while Louisa Bird was one of only ten African American women in the region). Clearly, he was one of the men who came to the Comstock to provide services for its overwhelmingly male population. Barbers were in demand—it was the most common occupation for African Americans in the western Great Basin in 1860 with nine of the thirty-eight adults listing barber as his profession. Laborer and cook were next with six and five respectively.

Like other barbers, Bird advertised and sold hair treatment products from his shop. The Territorial Enterprise, for example, contains Bird's advertisements throughout the 1860s and 1870s. According to the ads, his Imperial Hair Restorative and Capillary Fertilizer was known for “speedily restoring new hair on Bald Heads and imparting new life and vigor to the old hair.”

Remarkably, Bird announced his candidacy as an independent for mayor of Virginia City in 1870. This decision was controversial and remains puzzling to this day. The major issue stemmed from his declaration as an independent at a time when African Americans were nearly universally supporters of the Republican Party. The Bay Area Elevator suggested that Bird's candidacy was a Democratic Party conspiracy: “He is evidently put forward by Democrats in hopes of securing the colored vote, and thereby defeating the Republican nominee. Mr. Bird is probably as well qualified for the position as any other man, but we believe his political antecedents are unsound.” This analysis, however, presumes a Democratic candidate in the election, and the records do not show one. Nonetheless, Bird's candidacy seems to have generated significant hostility suggested by an antagonistic article in the Republican Carson Appeal and a letter similar in tone, said to represent the views of African American residents of Hamilton, Nevada.

Despite losing this election, Bird's popularity is supported by the fact that he received 320 votes in his losing bid. His influence in the community inspired the editors of both of the Bay Area's black newspapers—the Elevator and the Pacific Appeal—to interview Bird when they visited Virginia City. Both subsequently wrote articles about him. The last reference to Bird comes in June, 1876, when his barbershop is mentioned in the Pacific Appeal.

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