Dr. W. H. C. Stephenson was northern Nevada’s most prominent African-American citizen in the nineteenth century. Stephenson was one of the few African Americans in Virginia City to serve as an unofficial spokesperson for the Black community in the 1860s. He was involved in numerous efforts to improve conditions for those living in Nevada.
Stephenson was born in 1825 in Washington, DC. His exact date of arrival to 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, notes showed his name in a meeting for African-American citizens in Virginia City, Nevada, where he resided until 1870.
Stephenson opened up his own private practice in Virginia City. Health Care across the United States was segregated at the time, he served as the physician for the black residents. It was reported that his net worth in the 1860s was $2,000, which was very profitable at the time. Stephenson’s professional status moved him into a leadership role within the city’s African-American population.
In June 1865, 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.”
Stephenson wrote stinging letters protesting the prohibition against African-American testimony in civil cases and the lack of public schools for children of color in Virginia City. After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, he urged African-American citizens to use the vote to win concessions. Records show that Stephenson registered to vote in 1870 and that one white resident refused to sign under him, a refusal that elicited a stinging rebuke in the Territorial Enterprise.
In 1870, Stephenson left the area. Reports suggest that, he nearly killed a man with the wrong prescription. It is believed that Stephenson died around 1873. Although he disappeared, his wife continued to live and work in the town as a hairdresser until 1875.