When Brenda Williams’s husband, Monroe, became one of the Las Vegas Fire Department’s first two African-American employees in July 1963, some of his new coworkers weren’t welcoming.
“They were faced with some pretty horrible circumstances,” Brenda said. “They were using the ‘N’ word, writing it on their lockers. They wouldn’t let them sleep on the mattresses, all kinds of things.”
After Monroe’s death in 2012, Brenda found detailed accounts of the harsh treatment in notes Monroe had written before he died. He’d never told her about it. She headed an event Feb. 9 at Doolittle Senior Center that commemorated the lives of Monroe and other fire officials who integrated the department. It was part of the city’s February Black History Month series of events.
About 100 people attended, including Julian Flowers, captain for Fire Station 106. Brenda invited former firefighters and city employees to share their memories with the crowd.
“We’re celebrating the pioneers who laid the groundwork not only for African-Americans but minorities,” Flowers said. “It’s important that we recognize that and understand that the people who came before us laid the groundwork for us to be able to enjoy this career and provide a service to the community.”
Dorothy Walton Smith, a former personnel employee for the city, faced the challenging task of recruiting minorities after being hired in 1965.
“I would go into the community, to the barbershops, and take flyers,” she said, “but during that time, a lot of minorities didn’t want to work for the city because they made more money working in casinos. We usually couldn’t get enough people to come in and apply to those jobs.”
Now, Smith said, there’s an ample number of applicants.
“It was difficult times when we were trying to recruit, but I was blessed to have been a part of that history and see how far the fire department has come,” Smith said.
The event served as the official unveiling of an exhibit of historic photos collected from fire stations across the Las Vegas Valley. It is available for viewing from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. weekdays through the end of the month.
Brenda, who serves as the president and founder of the Westside School Alumni Foundation, has made it her life’s work to keep this history alive. The foundation has been around since 2010, and is a branch of the Westside School Alumni Association which was started in the 70s. Once it died out, founding members asked Brenda to pick up the mantle and keep the foundation going to preserve the history, she said.
“If we don’t tell our history, someone else will do it for us,” Brenda said. “We’re concerned that our history gets obliterated and miscommunicated. We need something in our community that tells our story to bring people into the community.”
Other Black History Month events
Saturday: The annual Black History Month Festival is set for 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd. It includes live bands, spoken word and hip-hop performers; a presentation honoring late civil rights champion Dr. James McMillan; a historic Black Las Vegas photo exhibit and Civil Rights-era photography; soul food from local restaurants; and activities for children. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children ages 3-17 and free for children under 2. Visit springspreserve.org.
Saturday: A free book discussion about issues affecting African-Americans titled “Sankofa Conversations: Continuing the Journey” is set for 2-4 p.m. Saturday at West Las Vegas Arts Center, 947 W. Lake Mead Blvd. Reference books include “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” an autobiography by Linda Brent, and “Tears We Cannot Stop,” by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. Another discussion is set for 2-4 p.m. March 23. Call 702-229-ARTS or visit artslasvegas.org.
Tuesday: “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks,” a performance about the poet and educator that includes storytelling, original music and visuals, is set for 7 p.m. at Charleston Heights Arts Center, 800 S. Brush St. Tickets are $25; visit ci.ovationtix.com/35056/performance/10346328. For more information, call 702-229-2787.
Feb. 22-24: Dr. Runoko Rashidi’s lecture titled “the Global Black Presence” is set for Feb. 22 as part of “Black Weekend 2018: Kemit in the Desert Series.” it’s followed by Ashra and Merira Kwesi’s presentation “A Return to Kemit” Feb. 23 and Antonio Fargas’ talk titled “A Black Actor’s View of Hollywood” on Feb. 24. All three events are set for 7 p.m. at the West Las Vegas Library Theatre, 951 W. Lake Mead Blvd.
Feb. 22: Ron Becks, a producer, writer, director, actor and singer, is set to share his story about what it takes to make it in the film industry as an African-American man at 7 p.m. at Whitney Library, 5175 E. Tropicana Ave.
Feb. 23: Heart of Black History Essay Contest winners will be announced, and all participants will be recognized, from noon-2 p.m. at East Las Vegas Community Center, 250 N. Eastern Ave. Admission is $5, or free for registered contest participants. Call 702-229-1515.
Feb 25: A discussion titled “Opera Legends in Black: A Celebration of African American Achievement” is set for 2 p.m. at the West Las Vegas Library Theatre, 951 W. Lake Mead Blvd.
Feb. 28: Children ages 6-11 can learn about achievements by figures such as astronaut Mae Jemison, comic book artist Matt Baker and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens as part of “African American History Month: Amazing Achievements” from 4:30-5:30 p.m. at Windmill Library, 7060 W. Windmill Lane. Tickets for the free program will be handed out 30 minutes in advance. For more information, call 702-507-6041.
Through April 11: The annual “After Images” exhibition, which features the work of an African-American artist who lives and works in Las Vegas, this year features work by Vicki Richardson. It can be viewed from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays at the second-floor chamber gallery at City Hall, 495 S. Main St. Visit artslasvegas.org or call 702-229-ARTS.