Charles Kellar was already a lawyer when he moved to Nevada, yet it took him five years and a Nevada Supreme Court decision to get admitted to practice. Once he did, the first thing he did was file a lawsuit that ultimately desegregated Clark County schools. One by one, he targeted practices and institutions that denied full citizenship to Southern Nevada’s blacks.
He will be 90 this year and wonders aloud who is going to finish the fight. He mentions young black lawyers reared in Las Vegas who got good educations partly because of battles fought in the 1960s by activists like him. "Did you ever hear of those young people taking on anything for blacks?" he asks rhetorically.
Kellar was born June 11, 1909, in Barbados. "My mother, when she became 12 years of age, was hired out to the home of a plantation owner, and during the course of her engagement with the family, she was seduced and produced me six days after she became 16 years of age," said Kellar.
"I didn’t have any relationship with my father," continued Kellar. "My father would ride his big white horse past the place we lived, and I would go out. … I would speak to him, but he would never speak to me. He would just goad the horse to go on faster."
His father’s refusal to acknowledge him was not a product of racial prejudice, but of class. "My father was said to be the richest black man in Barbados," said Kellar. Whether black or white, he explained, "It was the practice of rich folks to take advantage of pretty young girls."
After the birth of a second child a year later, Kellar said, his grandmother put her maternal foot down and hauled her daughter off to Bridgetown, the largest city on Barbados. There she met a man from Trinidad, who brought the family to Brooklyn, N.Y., when Charles was 11. His mother found a job pitting cherries in a cannery. "The man who became my stepfather was a very industrious person who was an itinerant caretaker for the houses of wealthy persons." Within three or four years, said Kellar, they had made enough money to buy their own home and work their way into the middle class.
A good student, Kellar said he won a scholarship to Cornell University but was unable to enroll because of an untimely fire that destroyed all his college clothes. He attended City College of New York instead.
Kellar became a probation officer but after seven years decided to become a lawyer. "I saw such discrimination in the courts," he explained. "I saw that blacks could not find persons to represent them, so I decided to do it."
He went into general practice, and eventually headed a law firm with five other lawyers working for him. "I started suing police for violating people’s civil rights," he said. "At that time they had the idea that you could not sue the state, that the police were part of the state and you therefore couldn’t sue them. But after my pressing for a couple of lawsuits, they learned you could. These were over excessive use of force. They would beat the hell out of you and say it was essential to subdue you."
Civil rights law is not normally a lucrative field, and Kellar learned to make money elsewhere to subsidize cases he wanted to pursue on principle. "In those days we had the problem that whites moved out of areas where blacks were invading, so they left all those beautiful old houses unoccupied and you could buy them very cheaply. I at one time had 50 of those with my own staff to sublet and take care of them. I had an income of more than $1 million a year."
At that time, the head of the NAACP legal division was Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall was heading the NAACP Bar Representation Program. Part of that effort was to send black lawyers to establish residency in states where there weren’t any, and Nevada was one of them. "I sold my houses and went to Nevada with a certified check for $285,000."
When he tried to deposit the check at a Las Vegas bank in 1960, the bank summoned police to arrest him. "They assumed a black man with that much money had to be an escaping felon." Kellar said he did not lose his temper, but laughed so hard the police were too embarrassed to book him. Eventually his check was honored.
Nor did Kellar find a warm welcome from the Nevada Bar. In those days, one had to live in Nevada a year to establish eligibility to take the bar examination. Whites normally supported themselves in the interim by doing paralegal work for some law firm. Nobody offered this option to Kellar. He spent the time studying for his real estate license at the fledgling college now called UNLV and resumed his habit of investing in property.
When he went to Reno to take his bar exam, said Kellar, the hotel where he had made reservations took one look at him and refused admission. He had no time to find another room before the exam and slept two nights in the airport.
"When the results were published, they didn’t publish any results for me." Kellar asked why and was told that his score was so high it was assumed he had somehow cheated.
Kellar went on the radio, saying Nevada refused to admit blacks to the bar.
The accusations hit home, sending bar members scurrying to Howard University, where it was made known blacks could take the Nevada bar exam. Kellar believes two good students were hand-picked because they were almost certain to pass. "One of them was Earl White, who later became a judge. I don’t remember if they both passed, but Earl did for sure."
Kellar’s admission was still delayed, so he sued. The Nevada Supreme Court finally ordered him admitted in 1965. "I started immediately to lay the foundation for civil rights actions," said Kellar. "The first case I filed was a lawsuit to provide equal opportunity in the schools."
Clark County schools had no written segregation policy, said Kellar, but did have an ironclad school zoning system. Combined with widespread discriminatory housing practices, the effect was the same, confining nearly all black elementary students to schools in the black neighborhoods of West Las Vegas. "You could only go to a school where you lived, and you couldn’t live anywhere you couldn’t buy property or rent an apartment," he pointed out. "I wanted it so you could live anywhere and go to any school."
Kellar won, but regarded the victory as partial. The Clark County School District decided to convert the West Las Vegas schools to sixth grade centers, which would be fully integrated. White students would be bused to the sixth grade centers, and black students would walk to school — in the sixth grade. For the other 11 years, black students would be bused out of the neighborhood. Blacks accepted this partial relief, said the late civil rights activist, Lubertha Johnson, because, "It was the only choice that we felt we could deal with at the time."
Kellar said the Supreme Court awarded him no fees. "They said they wouldn’t because I was said to be wealthy and the defendants had not been obdurate …" But white lawyers who won cases in the Supreme Court were often wealthy men and the issue was rarely raised in their cases.
By the time the school suit was concluded, the defendant was Kenny Guinn, then superintendent of schools and now Nevada’s governor. Kellar harbors no bitterness toward him. "After it was over, he appointed black people to higher places in the school administration than they ever had been before," Kellar pointed out.
Kellar filed lawsuits over employment of blacks, housing, public accommodations. He sued an insurance company for canceling a policy and a savings and loan company for refusing to let him buy a condo at Tropicana Villas. He overturned death penalties. Many cases he doggedly pursued to the Nevada Supreme Court and claims he never lost one there.
His courtroom demeanor would get Kellar in trouble more than once. In 1967, Municipal Judge D. Francis Horsey ruled against Kellar’s client and asked him if he needed time to prepare an appeal. "You’re damn right I’m going to appeal," snapped Kellar. Horsey promptly fined him $100 for intemperate language. That same year, U.S. District Judge Roger D. Foley fined him another $100 for arguing with him.
And today Kellar will admit that Foley’s brother Tom, a judge in Clark County District Court, fined him for punching another lawyer in open court. "He was taking advantage of me," said Kellar. "He told me, ‘Oh, you sit down,’ and I said, ‘We’ll see you sit down,’ and hit him with my fist." There went another $100.
Kellar served as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branches in Brooklyn and Las Vegas, and served for many years as the Las Vegas group’s legal counsel. Frequently, he served as spokesman even during the presidency of others.
In April 1967 he announced that the NAACP executive board would consider "a march in front of Strip hotels to protest unequal employment of Negroes."
By May he was threatening legal action. By June, somebody was shooting rifle bullets through his windows. He offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to arrest and conviction, but nobody ever collected it.
In July, an explosive blew an 8-inch hole in the rear door of his office. Police made no arrests. "I don’t think they ever investigated," he said recently. "It was said on the street that the police were doing it. I wasn’t a favored person. They were trying to run me out of the state."
It certainly didn’t tone him down. Later that month, at a public gathering, Kellar urged blacks to apply for their share of some 1,900 new jobs at the recently opened Frontier Hotel and the soon-to-open Landmark resort. "When you go for these jobs make the best appearance you can. Some of these folks do not love you as much as I do."
He attributed new job openings, in part, to fear of uprisings by blacks. "White folks are coming to realize that they have to talk with us or fight with us. There are 25 million Negroes, and that’s a lot of folks to have to kill."
But he eventually took that fight to the courts, not the streets. It was one of the few he did not carry through to settlement, taking a back seat when the Justice Department stepped into the case.
The suit was settled when Las Vegas resorts and various unions signed consent decrees opening jobs to blacks and other minorities.
Bob Bailey, another prominent black who was active in civil rights issues at the time, said, "His participation in bringing about legal actions, and adding that into the civil rights struggle here in Nevada, was the final stroke in bringing the business community into realization there would be some opportunities provided to African Americans."
He is not a one-dimensional man. Kellar had an active social life in an elaborate house. As a child in Brooklyn, he lived in a tenement with more families than bathrooms. He swore that when he got rich he would have enough bathrooms so nobody would wait.
His custom-built Las Vegas home has five bedrooms, a big family room, a swimming pool — and seven bathrooms.
It also has a greenhouse. Kellar was an avid gardener, especially devoted to roses and orchids.
One of the blessings of his life, said Kellar, was the fact that even while people were trying to scare him away, nobody bothered his family. "As a matter of fact, my wife was very popular. She was a high-class secretary and insurance broker." Now deceased, Cornelia Street Kellar was the mother of Michael Charles Kellar, who now practices law in Marina Valley, Calif. Kellar has another son, Charles Jr., from a previous marriage. He lives in Las Vegas and is retired after a career in the culinary arts.
In 1970, Kellar stepped down from office with the Las Vegas NAACP to take a regional job with the same organization. In the course of that job, after his wife’s death, he got into a dispute with another NAACP official, Bettye Clark Black. He explained, "She was trying to conduct a meeting, and lawyers are used to expounding their position, and she was on the inside, and I was on the outside, and she was not about to be overcome by a lawyer who is on the outside."
So he asked her to marry him.
"They all told me not to marry him, you’ll never get him to shut up," laughed Bettye. "I never did get him to, and I don’t guess I want to."
Part I: The Early Years
Part II: Resort Rising
Part III: A City In Full