Carmen Head – Growing Up In Hawthorne Nevada


Carmen Head

Carmen Head

I was born 1951 in Hawthorne Nevada. My parents moved out to Nevada from Louisiana in the 30s. They went to work at the military base there because they could not get jobs in the south. It seemed like everybody knew somebody that moved out from the south. Someone would call someone else and say, Theyre are hiring out here man. Come on out. And thats how my parents ended up in Hawthorne working at the base. It was a small community. We all lived in Babbitt which was a military installation. And at that time it was well populated. I dont know what the population was, but it was quite a few people living in government housing.

OSI – What has become of the Babbitt Military Installation?

Carmen – Babbitt no longer exist. The homes are no longer there and have been sold off. When the contractors came in they decided they no longer wanted to rent out the structures. The houses were so old. I think they were built in the 1920s and would have had to be upgraded. So they sold and moved the structures for I think $400 Some were moved to Reno, Tonopah and other areas. I have seen some of the structures here. I believe some of the Babbitt housing were moved to different areas of old Reno and the Indian reservation near the airport. They were moved up here, put on slabs, brought up to code and resided. You can see them off the road in Tonopah Nevada. I can spot a Babbitt house anywhere. The lots that the houses sat on in Babbitt are still there but the government housing is gone. I remember for our 30th class reunion a couple of us got in one of my girl friends car and we drove to Babbitt. And we just kinda sat there and we found where each of us had lived. The sidewalks are still there and you can still find places where somebody carved their initials. I remember my father had planted a tomato garden and years after they had removed the houses those tomatoes were still there. Babbitt was a nice community. They gave out rewards for the best Christmas decorations and they gave out monthly rewards for the nicest yards.

OSI – What percentage of the population was black?

Carmen – You know it was still a small community. Maybe two, three percent. But at that time Hawthorne was segregated. We lived on 30th Street. The government housing on the base ran from 11th Street to 30th Street. 30th Street was the last street. Most people who lived in Babbitt were black people and they all lived from 30th Street to about 20th. And over off of Lexington, there was a section there too. It wasnt until 1960 something that we ( blacks) actually integrated down further into the government housing. Everybody worked at the base. All our parents worked on the base but the community leaders still had the audacity to keep it segregated. My mother, was a die hard worker in the civil rights era there.
OSI – What was her name?

Carmen – Carlee Williams. And my fathers name was Cordell Williams.

OSI – Were you born there?

Carmen – I was born in Mount Grant General hospital which was little bit out of town. Thats where everybody was born.

Modern Mount Grant Hospital

OSI – What was it like growing up there?

Carmen – It was comfortable . It was nice. We didnt have a lot but we made due with what we did had. My parents were real strict. They did not allow me to do a lot of things out side the house. Anything I did do outside of the house my mother took me to. She kept me active. I wasnt involved in a lot of school activities, but being a small community our parents tried to get us in a lot of things. Itook dancing lessons from the age of four up to about eight years old. They even tried to start a little debutant organization in Hawthorne. I didnt like that. I was a tomboy. I didnt want to have anything to do with dresses and frills. I was a daddys girl also. Id rather be with my father working on a car or up behind the TV trying to fix it. I didnt want anything to do with cleaning the kitchen, cleaning the house, cooking or non of that stuff. So I was a daddys girl and my mother tried hard to make me into a young lady. I was raised in Bethel Baptist Church in Hawthorne as a little girl.

OSI – Who was the pastor?

Carmen – I cant remember my first pastor at that time. But Reverend Harris was one of our pastors. As a matter of fact he conducted my marriage ceremony. Vera Davis and her son Columbus Davis lived in Hawthorne. And Connie Davis and I were really good friends. In church Ms. Davis was one of our Sunday School teachers. I remember that. We had a pretty good congregation there. We were all raised in that church. We had the BYU. We had all those different little programs. We had a childrens choir and things like that. They were tough on us. They use to pinch us when we acted up.

OSI – Even though the black community was small would you say it was a strong community?

Carmen – I Think so. You know when you say it takes a community to raise children? In Hawthorne thats the way it was. When we lived in Babbitt one of my dearest friends mother lived next door and that was Wileva Speights. She was like a second mother to me. I remember one day I was outside striking matches and I told Charlotte dont you tell your mom but her mom had already seen me. She called Charlotte in and then called me in, and then she proceeded to whip my behind for sticking those matches. I was also raised with Regina Brantly and her family. Whenever I would go down and visit her, if we did anything wrong, Ms. Brantly would whip my behind just like my parents would and then I would go and get another whippin from my parents. So it was a community. In Babbitt we had a small little commercial area where they had a Safeway grocery store and a Johnson Rexall Drugs Store. And I can remember as a child going into Johnson drug store with two of my girl friends, because we were going to have a party. Well we didnt have any money to get anything so we stole some candy and Mr. Johnson saw me steal it. And so he held me there and called my parents. Thats how close the community was. He was a white man but he didnt treat us like we were black kids who were doing wrong. He treated us like he would any other kid. He just pulled me to the side. Called my parents. My dad came and got me. Mr. Johnson told him what I did, and of coarse I suffered the repercussions. Mr. Johnson talked to me about stealing and being trusted, and when you do something like this to people you loose that trust. And so I learned a lesson from that. But that was a community raising a child. We may have lived in a segregated area but we all, the black and white kids, went to the same school. There was no segregation in the schools.

OSI – What were the names of the schools you attended there?

Carmen – I went to Babbitt Elementary from 1st grade till about 3rd grade. And then I went to Hawthorne Elementary in 4th. I attended Hawthorne Junior High School and then, Mineral County High School. We were bused to school from Babbitt to Hawthorne.

OSI – Was it obvious that there were racial problems?

Carmen – They had a casino which is still there, the El Capitan and it was owned by this white man named Woody Loftin. But believe it or not blacks could not go into the casino. I dont even think they worked in the casino. They didnt hire black people. But he ran a gambling organization outside of the casino with blacks. Matter fact he would loan them money. I dont know the details but I am sure it was a situation where he did not have to report what he was doing. He would loan people money to gamble. I remember my dad talking about that when I was little and my dad unfortunately had a bad gambling habit. And somewhere in the town the blacks would go and do their gambling, but they could not go to the casino to do it. They would also borrow money from him to buy cars and stuff like that. That was a part of his entrepreneurship even though that part of it was wrong. Just like even at the base in Hawthorne racism and segregation was wrong but it existed. It was a military base but what they were doing was making ammunition for the war. The base got its start during World War II if Im not mistaken. It was established for that purpose. So they were making ammunition that was going to be sent to the war and they were also bringing back ammunition that wasnt any good and would have to be broke down. There was a rumor that the reason they were hiring black people was because it would put them in harms way other than putting the white people in harms way. Thats why they could get jobs out there. But if you are a young black person from Monroe Louisiana, like my parents were and you couldnt get a job other than going back out to the cotton fields you looked west for a job, for a chance to start over, for a chance to have something.

OSI – And even though that was dangerous it was attractive?

Carmen – Exactly. A lot of people came out west for that purpose.

OSI – What impact has the black citizens of Babbitt had on the Northern Nevada community today?

Carmen – They impact Northern Nevada as well as this country with their willingness to work hard and be productive inspite of the racism, segregation and danger they experienced because of the color of their skin. Hawthornes ability to survive as long as it did and this countries success during the wars of the Babbitt era, was largely in part due to the contributions and courage of the Blacks in Babbitt Nevada. I think the vast majority of them went to Vegas. There was a few that went to Reno. A lot of them bypassed Nevada and went to California. Maybe the opportunity was better in California. A few have made an impact. Take Luther Mack and his family, theyre from Hawthorne. I dont know his family origin but they started in Hawthorne and then came to Reno. So, you know, that was the black heritage, I dont care what brought them out here, at least they came out here and I tried to make it happen. I am proud to have come from Nevada. Im not ashamed that Im from Nevada. And I am very happy that I am from Hawthorne Nevada, because I think it produced a fairly decent quality person. People that wanted to work within the system, people that wanted to have something, all they needed was a chance to have it. Regardless of how it was going to be given, it was a chance. Thats all anybody wants is a chance to have a piece of the American pie. Just dont slam the door in their face to keep them from having it. And as I was growing up I remember my mother telling me she use to clean peoples houses and toilets for a living in her early years. She never wanted me to do that. It was impressed on me to get an education and just be smart about life. If you are going to go out there and work just try to work as hard as you can to have what you need to have. Thats how I was raised. My parents were hard workers. Both of them.

OSI – When did you move from Hawthorne to Reno?

Carmen – 1982. I probably would have never left Hawthorne had I not decided that I wanted to do something different. And also because I noticed that my children were starting to succumb to the things that corrupt teenagers. I thought if I stayed in Hawthorne I could keep them away from the drugs, the sex, whatever it was that would keep them from advancing in life. But when I discovered that that wasnt going to make a difference I decided that maybe we needed a better opportunity so I changed careers and I came to Reno to go to beauty school and thats how I ended up here.

OSI – Regarding Hawthorne, when did the majority of the blacks move to other areas?

Carmen – Oh Yeah. You know Hawthorne suffered economic struggles just like any place else. But mostly its economic struggle came at the end of war. When there was no more war then there was no longer work. And of coarse the young people wanted to leave home. They didnt want to live like their parents. .They thought that maybe a bigger city would offer them more opportunity. So when they got out of high school and went to college that was their out. If they didnt go to college then they ended up stuck at the base working and a lot of young people did not want to end up at that base. Truthfully the money was good. It was just a economically deprived town. You could make good money, but what did you have to spend it on in Hawthorne. Some of the towns down fall was when its citizens got paid, whether once or twice a month, those people would take their money and go to Fallon to buy groceries or come to Reno and buy groceries and spend their money. So they werent putting their money back into their community. It didnt have anything to offer.

OSI – What was the population back then.

Carmen – I dont know. It fluctuated over the years. During the Vietnam War we had our biggest influx of people. At that point in time they were working people, three shifts, seven days a week, at that base. So they were making money and there were lots of people working 24/7, coming and going. Some would stay and some would just take what they made and leave. The town itself had nothing to offer. We had one grocery store and that was Safeway and one small grocery store which was Josephs market. Their prices were high because we were out in the middle of nowhere. the cost to bring goods to Hawthorne is what made the cost high. The Safeway in Reno would be cheaper than the Safeway in Hawthorn. And people had to make that dollar last. The base didnt pay you every week. It paid you on a two week bases or once a month bases depending on what department you worked in or if you worked for the Federal government. I remember going to the grocery store was the community event. I hated it. I would go into the store with my mom and the minute wed hit the door my mom would start speaking to someone like they hadnt seen each other in that small town for a while. We would go over on the far left side where the meat was and she would go up that counter looking at every piece of meat. Then we would come back down on the grocery side checking out every item. I would tell my mother, Dont you know what you want?

OSI – It was a treat for her to come to Reno?

Carmen – Yeah. Well this was even in Hawthorne. It was a treat because she ended up being a stay-at-home mom and not really getting out that much. Every two-week payday everybody was at the grocery store and got a chance to socialize other than going to Church.. And my dad would sit in the car and wait and I would ask him, Can I stay with you?. He would say, No. Go in the store. I think thats why I hate grocery shopping to this day.

OSI – What is Hawthorne like today?

Carmen – A dieing town. They have had some companies and corporations looking to place something there to build the economy. But I have to say that Hawthorne is having a problem. The county commissioners and the people of Hawthorne actually didnt want outsiders. They did not want new companies coming in. They wanted what they had to flourish. So they made it difficult for companies and corporations and it hurt the town more than help. Those other corporations could have come in and Hawthorne could have got taxes off of that, and brought more people there, but the main source of income was that base. We had a few mines that were around that also employed people for a while but they would operate for so long and then they would shut down because the mines would run out. But the base was the main source of income and when there was no war then Hawthorne no-longer flourished.

Hawthorne, Nevada

OSI – How many blacks do you think are living there now.

Carmen – Its a small percentage. But its still generational. I know people that have gone back to Hawthorne. I know people my age who have retired and went back to Hawthorne for a simpler life. They still dont have a major medical facility. There a hospital there but they depend on doctors to come in. There are no doctors that live in Hawthorne. Lawyers are the same way. You make more money in the city. Why stay in Hawthorne.

OSI – For the most part folks commute to and from Hawthorne?

Carmen – Yes. Fallon has benefited from the slowing down of Hawthorne. There are people who have moved to Fallon but still work at the base in Hawthorne.

OSI – What part do you think Hawthorne played in the history of Northern Nevada, especially when it comes to the black community?

Carmen – My mother was really involved in the community. She participated in the March Of Dimes and politics. When I was growing up she was involved in helping with the elections. She would go out and canvass and get people to vote. My mother was really committed to community work for the town. A lot of blacks there were involved to a certain degree but they would only go so far. Most wanted to live their lives do their work and move on.

OSI – What does the future hold for Hawthorne?

Carmen – Hawthorne was officially a full fledge town. It had a government seat and county commissioners. We had a courthouse. We had a town government. But I think that the area itself will end up like Herlong, California. Because the base is its only source of income. Unless they could pull in Geo Thermal. That would be something that would be great for that community. They have brought a few things out to Hawthorne. There was a little camp out there for troubled children. There has been a project going on that has generated road construction but no one is talking about what that project might be.. Unless they get something to help this town its going to die. If I was a person living in Hawthorne I probably would have twenty or thirty years at that base, and a good government retirement. I could stay there. But if Im twenty years old I think I would want to leave. Hawthorne is a town that was established for the war. Hawthorne has a pride for people that have fought in the war and was a part of the military because that is what has helped them thrive. They have military pride. They still celebrate Armed Forces Day down there. They have a parade and everything.

OSI – In closing, if you one thing to tell someone about Hawthorne what would be.

Carmen – I would tell them that I am proud of Hawthorne. Im proud of where I came from. I have often been asked, What do you do in Hawthorne. How can anyone live out there. I say, What do you do in Reno? You do the same thing. The only thing is you think you have to have all of the buildings. The thing is, you do no more right here in Reno than you do in Hawthorne. You get up. You go to work. You go to the store and you go back home. Occasionally you might go out and have a drink. The truth be told there is no more hear in Reno than there is in Hawthorne. And you make where you are your home. Everything that you need in life, a roof over your head, food in your stomach, the comfort of good friends, Hawthorne provides that. There are a lot of people I go to see that live there. My parents arent there. I have no immediate family there. But the town is my family. The blacks and some of the whites are my family. So it is a good community. I miss that. The community and the effort made in making you feel like were somebody.