The Lincoln Union Club served as an organizational body for Virginia City’s African American residents during the peak of the Comstock era. Its mission and activities reflect both the remarkable optimism and confidence of African Americans in Northern Nevada during the 1870s.
For a brief period after the end of the Civil War, a sense of optimism was noticeable in African American communities across the nation. With the Union victory and the resulting ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, a new era of promise dawned, and African Americans began to take action to make the gains of this period real. Much of the activity was located in the South, of course, where the majority of African Americans lived at that time. For example, African Americans in that region formed schools at a remarkable pace, with at least 150,000 students enrolled by 1870 funded by over $1,000,000 in contributions from African Americans. In addition, 1,465 African Americans held political office in the South during the Reconstruction years.
This optimism was not confined to the Southern states. Across the nation, African Americans organized groups to advocate for the civil rights legislation and enforcement of existing civil rights protections. In some cases, this involved state or national conventions of African Americans, such as those held in Syracuse, New York, in 1864 and Nashville, Tennessee, in 1870. Smaller groups emerged around the country as well, often openly associated with the Republican Party. For example, Denver had a Black Republican Club in the 1870s. Groups such as the Union League and Lincoln Brotherhood were founded across the nation in order to organize and mobilize black votes for the Republican Party.
African Americans in Virginia City formed a similar group, the Lincoln Union Club, on February 16, 1870. The Reconstruction-era optimism is evident in a statement made by one of the members at the time of the group’s founding. According to this member, “the object of our club is for united political action throughout the state, in view of the good time coming.” At the first meeting, Dr. W. H. C. Stephenson was elected president for a six-month term, and five other officers were selected as well.
The Lincoln Union Club played a role in the organization of the celebration of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in April of 1870. The parade was scheduled to begin at the “Hall of the Lincoln Union Club,” demonstrating that the club had acquired a permanent meeting place. The club existed until at least 1876. Not surprisingly, the fortunes of the club faded as, simultaneously, the boom period faded on the Comstock, and hope evaporated for expansion of civil rights in the post-Reconstruction era.