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The Nevada Independent

Inspired by 1940s photo, minister reconnects with Henderson’s first Black family

Nevada gained thousands of Black residents during the Great Migration, many flocking to jobs at the Basic Magnesium Plant built in 1941.
Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman

The Williams were the first Black family to move into Henderson’s segregated Carver Park housing project during the Great Migration in 1943, and year after year, they are depicted in Black History Month programs in Southern Nevada and state public literature. 

But that was all of the information historians knew about the Williams family.

That is until Vance “Minister Stretch” Sanders — whose many hats include social justice activist, community organizer and historian — sought to bring to the Las Vegas community's attention new facts about a “famous family in Nevada history” and its place in a city that is less racially diverse than its neighboring communities. It comes a year after he launched a genealogy movement to promote the importance of Black people discovering their ancestry and family history.

“It always bothered me that we had this historic family that was being shown every year but nobody can answer simple questions like, ‘Where are they now?’” Sanders said in an interview earlier this month. “So something in me … felt compelled to want to complete the story.”

After researching the family names in a photo from UNLV Special Collections, combing through databases such as African Ancestry, Family Search and the U.S. Census, and messaging a Black genealogy group made up of 50,000 people on Facebook, Sanders found that the youngest sibling, LaVaughn Williams, was still living and the young boy had been misidentified in the picture as a 4-year-old girl named Yvonne. 

Sanders said after researching his family history for more than a decade, he was confident that he could track down LaVaughn Williams to complete the story representing a family that was part of the estimated 6 million African Americans who moved from rural communities in the South to the North and West during the so-called Great Migration — the “greatest movement of people” in U.S. history.

“They’re more than just a picture,” Sanders said. “And they’re more than just Carver Park residents because that’s kind of become who they are [locally].”

Various family members of LaVaughn Williams' family are seen in framed photos at his home in Oakland, California, on Feb. 23, 2024. (Amir Aziz / The Nevada Independent)

Nevada and the Great Migration

From 1910 to 1970, Black families fled racial apartheid in the South in search of educational and economic opportunities and safety from racial violence, settling into burgeoning cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York City and Las Vegas, which is often missing from the list. 

Although Black people  opened up businesses and owned land in Las Vegas dating back to 1870, the population of Black residents fluctuated from 300 to more than 600 residents from the late 1800s to the 1940s, making up less than 1 percent of the population during those years and never exceeding 700 people. 

By 1950, there were more than 4,000 Black Nevadans, and 10 years after that, more than 13,000 Black people, making up more than half of minorities counted that year in the state (not including people identified as Mexican, who were counted as part of the white population after 1930). 

The U.S. Census counted nearly 28,000 Black residents in Nevada in 1970 — a rapid population growth often overlooked.

“​​I’ve read numerous Great Migration stories and none of them talk about [Las] Vegas,” Sanders said.

After the U.S. joined World War II in 1941, Black Americans began moving to Las Vegas in droves during a second wave of the migration, mainly from Louisiana and Arkansas, in search of jobs at the Hoover Dam and Basic Magnesium Plant, which supplied the U.S. War Department with magnesium for munitions and airplane parts. 

The first Black family of Henderson moved to Carver Park, which was built by Black architect Paul Revere Williams and housed Black plant workers, in 1943, the same year the factory was built. Sanders said telling the Williams family story is important and liberating to know.

“I never in my life spoke with a person that was a significant part of the Great Migration, in the way that [the Williams family] was,” he said. 

Today, the proportion of Black residents in Henderson falls below the average for the Las Vegas Valley, with Black people making up 6 percent of the population in Henderson, 12 percent of residents in Las Vegas and 22 percent of residents in North Las Vegas.

LaVaughn Williams poses for a photo with his 1967 Pontiac Firebird at his home in Oakland, California, on Feb. 23, 2024. (Amir Aziz / The Nevada Independent)

‘What it really means to not be forgotten’

LaVaughn Williams, 84, now lives in Oakland, California, where he worked as a car mechanic for more than six decades and spends his time helping family and friends work on cars and motorcycles. He has five children, including two who are adopted, who range in age from 42 to 61.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Williams said his time living in Henderson was cut short after five years of enjoying the mixed-minority community at Carver Park. He recalled fond memories of hitchhiking to Lake Mead, celebrating with fish fries after fishing trips and going on desert explorations chasing snakes near Basic Magnesium Plant.

“They'd all get together in a patiolike thing and they'd be all out there drinking, playing cards and all that stuff,” he said about the subdivision, which was segregated from white neighborhoods. “We'd be out there roller skating. I got memory of stuff like that.”

His father, R.O. Williams, labeled in the archived photo by UNLV Special Collections as Robert, was employed at Basic Magnesium Plant, while his mother, Rosie Lee Williams, was an apartment cleaner and worked at the adjacent white-only housing community called Victory Village. They hail from Louisiana on his mother’s side of the family and Arkansas on his father’s side of the family, becoming the first recorded Black family in Carver Park during the Great Migration.

He said his father worked during the week but on the weekends would drink heavily in the Historic Westside, which landed him in jail frequently. 

“I believe the sheriff's department requested for my father to leave,” Williams said. “They said they weren't going to arrest him no more and that they will kill him the next time they arrest him.”

They moved to Oakland, and Williams said his father no longer suffered from alcoholism and that he finished his career working as a janitor at Children’s Hospital Oakland.

LaVaughn Williams poses for a photo at his home in Oakland, California, on Feb. 23, 2024. (Amir Aziz / The Nevada Independent)

Despite the factors that led to their departure from Southern Nevada, Williams said he had fond memories of living in Henderson until age 9. He said his primary playmate was a Native American child who lived in the area and they sometimes played baseball or hitchhiked to Lake Mead to learn how to swim.

“White people would always stop and give us a ride down there,” he said. “We’d be down there swimming and playing, and when they get ready to eat lunch, they’d call us over and feed us. When they got ready to go, they’d ask us if we want to ride back home.”

Such activities used to warrant a spanking from his mother, but he said it was worth the trouble to play with friends and come home with sand in his hair.

He said his family was very close and ate dinner together each night while growing up. In Oakland, his father lived next door to his older sister and both lived past age 95, with his father living to age 98. 

His older brothers Theodore and Roscoe, who have since died, followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the U.S. military. That came after Theodore received a scholarship to UNLV for football after being nicknamed Basic Iron Man during his high school years at Basic High School, Williams said.

“When he was dragging people over the goal line, they would say, ‘Tito scored another one,’” he said. “Two or three guys would be holding on to him and he’d be going across the goal line.”

Sanders said that the motivation to complete the story about the Williams family was to humanize their existence.

“It is a part of my genealogist movement,” Sanders said. “And it's also just a part of what it really means to not be forgotten.”

Williams said his brother Roscoe made a career out of being in the Air Force, building up to the level of special clearance for handling classified material for pilots, while Theodore worked as an air police officer.

Williams’ older sister Cleopatra moved to Los Angeles and worked in the hospitality industry as a waitress, while his sister Clarice worked as a special education teacher in Berkeley, California. LaVaughn Willams is the last living sibling of the bunch. 

“[Carver Park] was mixed and we all played together as friends,” he said. “I remember just having a lot of fun when I was there. I didn't have no problems.”

This story was updated at 9:38 a.m. on 4/1/2024 to correct the number of Black Nevadans who lived in the state in 1970.


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