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The History And Influence Of Nevada's Black Lawmakers


There are 10 Black lawmakers serving in the Nevada State Legislature – that’s a larger share than African Americans in the statewide population.

That represents a rapid shift in the statehouse, where the first African American wasn’t elected until the 1960s.

State Senator Dallas Harris is one of those 10 lawmakers. She represents Las Vegas' 11th district. She said Nevada's Legislative Black Caucus has shown that diversity matters.

"I believe the caucus has been able to show... that we can move forward policies that just make sense and lead to more equity for everyone," she said, "It seems like the residents of Nevada have gotten the message and continue to focus on sending all kinds of elected leaders up to Carson City in order to make the state a bit better."

A lot of the issues that have been on the Legislative Black Caucus' agenda for several years became highlighted this past summer by protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

"Over the summer, this type of thing, I guess, rose to a lot of people's consciousness, but it something that a lot of us have known and lived with for a very long time," Harris said.

She said people in communities of color have been fighting some of these issues for a long time, while others in the population as a whole have not. 

Harris is bringing several police reform bills to the legislative session. She said the changes that Black legislatures want to make are not a knock on Nevada. 

"It's not necessarily because I think the police in Nevada are disproportionately more aggressive than anywhere else in the country," she said, "It's just that we've got to take the time to attack these issues because they've been put into place over the course of hundreds of years and it is all of our jobs to be just as intentional to dismantle each and every one of those barriers."

She said that each bill that is introduced is a step toward bringing down systemic problems.

For example, Harris is sponsoring a bill that would lower the cost of prison phone calls. She said that studies show when prisoners stay connected to family, they are less likely to return to prison.

Another bill would make it easier for people with felony drug convictions to access food stamp benefits. Harris doesn't understand why the state would want to make it more difficult for people trying to get back on their feet to get the help they need.

"Anywhere where we can make things better for average Nevadan, you will find me on board," she said.

Other bills she is supporting include the banning of restraint chairs, early warning systems for police officers that have shown racial bias, and clearer rules for how officers engage with protesters. 

Another bill that seems basic, but Harris said is vital, would collect data on traffic stops.

"My hope is that we can collect this data and then have some rigorous statistical analysis done to determine whether there is actually bias," she said, "I'm not looking to say, 'Oh look, there's a correlation here. There's more stops in East Las Vegas. There must be bias. No. We're going to take in all the factors that are relevant and make sure there is bias or there isn't."

Harris believes data collection is vital to understanding an issue and making good policy. 

While the agenda may seem bold to some, Harris believes that's what leaders should be doing.

"Who doesn't want their leaders to be ambitious? To have ambitious agendas?" she said. 

Harris said this week the State Senate honored the late Senator Joe Neal.

"If an ambitious agenda, born by his moral compass, is not a great summation of Senator Joe Neal, I don't know what is," she said, "That's the type of legacy he carries on. That's what all of us should be doing." 

She said an ambitious agenda is often made up of things that should already be in place.

State Senator Joe Neal was the first African American to serve in the State Senate. 

The first African American in the Legislature was Assemblyman Woodrow Wilson. He was elected in 1966.

Shayne Del Cohen is a board member of Our Story, Inc., a historical society in Reno focused on the history of the African-American community. She said that the Black lawmakers first elected to office in Nevada were outstanding leaders in the community.

"They were leaders. They were superior intelligence, charismatic and hard workers," she said.

Del Cohen noted that 1966, when Wilson was first elected, was a tumultuous time in the country when a lot of things were changing on a federal level. 

"The public became a little more educated. The public became a little more dedicated to the constitutional proposition to form a more perfect union," she said. 

The Black community has deep and lasting roots in Nevada. Del Cohen said the first Black person to be recorded as being in Nevada traveled with Jedediah Smith, who has been recorded as the first European American to travel across what is now Nevada in 1827. 

There is no exact number of African Americans who made their way to and through Nevada during the Gold Rush, she said.

For nine years, slavery was legal in Nevada when it was part of the Utah Territory. Del Cohen said there is a record of seven unnamed slaves in Nevada. One person who was a named slave - TJ Singleton - lived in Genoa, and at the time of statehood, he was only the recorded slave.

Del Cohen said there were several discriminatory laws that were part of Nevada's Constitution that have since disappeared like miscegenation laws, poll taxes, rules against representing oneself in court or even testify in court.

"Those things disappeared over time," she said, "Usually as a result of federal policy. As you come today... the needs of the community have always been the needs of everybody." 

Del Cohen said the old adage of a chain only being as strong as its weakest link applies to efforts to make changes. She said if there is a problem it needs to be addressed by everyone. 


Dallas Harris (D – Las Vegas), State Senate;  Shayne Del Cohen, board member, Our Story, Inc.

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.