Nothing better describes Dr. Charles I. West's influence on Nevada and myriad accomplishments than the first line of Hank Greenspun's Where I Stand column in the Las Vegas Sun on October 10, 1984. Greenspun, in devoting his column to Dr. West upon his death, began the tribute by saying, "The freedom fighter has lost a true champion."
The late Sun publisher went on to call Dr. West a healer of bodies, minds and souls, saying that this is the way he led others as he attempted to reverse "the ugly political and spiritual environment of Southern Nevada in the early 1950s."
Charles I. West was born in Washington, D.C. on September 27, 1908. His parents, Dr. Charles and Rebekah West, had four children: another son, John, who also became a doctor like his father and grandfather; twin daughters, Charlotte and Elizabeth; and the youngest, Charles, Jr. The Wests were a prominent and privileged family in Washington, D.C., where Rebekah became the first black principal in the local school system.
Charles I. West completed high school at the Williston Academy for boys in East Hampton, Massachusetts. He began his college years at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1933. He completed his internship at General Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and became a resident surgeon at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, hospital.
Dr. West served in World War II as a field surgeon and was wounded in France. After his military discharge, he studied at the London Tropical School of Medicine. Before returning to the United States, he traveled to Liberia, West Africa, where he and his brother John established a much needed hospital and later opened the first training school for nurses. Upon his return, West settled in Detroit, Michigan, where he set up a private practice, and met and married his beloved wife, Dorothy "Dottie" Seaman. They had two sons, John and Rocci.
In 1954, the family moved to Las Vegas at the suggestion of Count Basie, the great bandleader and a friend of Dr. West. Count Basie often played in Las Vegas and was greatly disturbed by the dearth of professional blacks in the community. Dr. West sought to change this. He became the first black to take the Nevada State Board of Medicine Examination, the first black medical doctor in southern Nevada, and the first black surgeon on the staff of Southern Nevada Medical Center. He also served as team physician to Rancho High School for ten years.
Las Vegas was widely known as "The Mississippi of the West," for its discriminatory and segregationist practices. In this environment, Dr. West's passion for equality soon became evident through his civil rights activities. He revitalized a defunct community organization known as the Nevada Voters' League and became its president. Keenly aware of the potency of political power, he urged blacks to become deputy registrars and register every eligible Nevadan to vote by participating in an organized "get out the vote" campaign. In that era, with no ward system in southern Nevada, all candidates for office had to campaign in all areas of the city.
Dr. James McMillan, who had shared office space with Dr. West in Detroit, was serving in the military when Dr. West moved to Las Vegas. Dr. West informed him that upon his discharge from the military, McMillan should come to Las Vegas to become Nevada's first black dentist. McMillan did so, and shortly after arriving, he ran for the presidency of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When Dr. William H. (Bob) Bailey came to the city to emcee the opening show at the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino in 1955, he remained in Las Vegas thanks to Dr. West's strong recommendation.
The three—West, McMillan, and Bailey—became the core leaders of the local civil rights movement. They were financially independent of the city's power structure and the gaming industry, given their involvement with established black leaders, the impetus to succeed at a more rapid pace, and the desire to achieve a greater degree of success in the civil rights arena. Through the NAACP, black leaders were able to enlighten legislators and work closely with then-governor Grant Sawyer.
Dr. West also influenced West Las Vegas and the entire community as publisher of the Las Vegas Voice. Working with his son John, as well as Alice Key, he made the Voice, as the name implies, the voice of the black community, black pride, and political activism.
During his lifetime, Dr. West received impressive acknowledgments and appointments. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to UNICEF, and he received a Nevada gubernatorial appointment to the Governor's Medical Advisory Board of the Aging, a state project that studied the feasibility of a retirement age of sixty-five. The National Conference of Christians and Jews honored him for promoting racial and religious harmony. His peers established the Charles I. West Medical Society. In 1964, Dr. West received a Nevada Centennial Year Certificate of Appreciation and Gratitude in recognition of Outstanding Community Service.
Dr. West's achievements and contributions have been acknowledged by the American Academy of General Practice, Post Graduate Study; the Odd Fellows and Rebekah of the U.S. and Canada for sponsorship of youth to the United Nations Pilgrimage; the Southern Nevada Human Relations Committee; the Medical Advisory Board of the Nevada Athletic Commission; the Las Vegas Branch of the NAACP; and the Urban Renewal Agency, for his service to the City of Las Vegas. He was awarded membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the Beta Eta Theta Chapter of Gamma Phi Delta Sorority's "This Is Your Life Tribute" in 1978.
Dr.West, his wife Dottie, and their two sons are now deceased. Upon his death, the Clark County School District named the Charles I. West Middle School for him.
In honor of Dr. West, Governor Mike O'Callaghan once stated, "Doc West was Nevada's Martin Luther King."