Las Vegas integration pioneer’s notes detail others’ cruelty

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.”

Contact Mia Sims at msims@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0298. Follow @miasims___ on Twitter.

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