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.”
John Reid, On Line Nevada