Saturday, January 17, 2009
The humiliated black men of Hoover Dam
The last time Washington D.C. promised great hope for workers amid a devastating economic crisis came in the form of a federal contract to construct Boulder Dam, a monumental goal in Nevada.
But black workers couldn't apply for those jobs during the Great Depression, according to the requirements of Six Companies, a coalition of general contractors that built what was later renamed Hoover Dam.
The company came up with the excuse that it would cost too much money to build a separate dormitory to house black workers after construction began in 1930, ironically, in the steep hills known as Black Canyon.
The government stayed out of the dispute, claiming it had no authority to dictate hiring practices to the company that limited work to white Americans.
It wasn’t until two years later that 10 black men were hired on the heels of complaints lodged by the NAACP, according to an exhibit at the tiny Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum. It’s tucked in the rear of the Colonial-style Boulder Dam Hotel in the small town founded in 1931 to house the thousands of men who built the impressive concrete structure along the Colorado River.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was doubly upset because Six Companies had just hired a number of Indians, as it believed members of that race had the right balancing skills to handle jobs high in the air.
Another 14 black men would be hired, but their crew was forced to live 30 miles from the construction site, come to work in their own buses and drink from segregated water sources. Worse yet, they were assigned jobs in the Arizona gravel pits to endure the hottest temperatures anywhere on the job site.
A PBS story, “Hiring African Americans,” summed it up in these terms, “The construction of Hoover Dam was proof of human progress on many levels. Progress on civil rights and race relations, however, could not be counted among them.”