“You people go back and wait for the second trip:” Racism at the Hoover Dam

Today’s post was written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives in Denver

Author’s historical note: While originally named the Hoover Dam in 1931, the dam was renamed Boulder during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and called this in 1936, when the following story takes place. In 1947, the name reverted back to Hoover Dam, which is still used today.

The man refused. He and his party even had special tour passes issued by the Boulder Dam construction manager; they had a right to board the elevator for the tour. But the elevator operator again ordered him and his party to the back, saying, “You people go back and wait for the second trip.” A ranger, who was called to the scene, reiterated the point: “Those boys are operating the elevator, not you.” The man again refused. As he would later write, he told the ranger he could be forced out or even arrested, but the ranger “could not make us give up our self-respect by submitting to jim-crowing proceedings.” The ranger had had enough. Ordering the party out, he repeatedly pushed the man by the shoulder to hurry him along—and then arrested him.

The story might have ended there, lost to history, save for the fact that the arrested man was noted academic D. William Pickens, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Director of Branches. The controversy over his arrest would last for months, at one point even reaching the White House. This is that story.

Pickens sitting at desk w/paper in hand
Here we see William Pickens six years later, serving as Negro Organizational Section Chief of the Department of Treasury’s War Savings Department. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

It was 1936. The massive Boulder Dam had been completed after five long years, and tourists were eagerly visiting the new landmark. Pickens, and by extension the NAACP, was no stranger to the project, given his years of working to ensure Black employment at the dam site. This fight is documented in the headquarter records of the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), which are held at the National Archives at Denver in Record Group 115. Amongst the dam reports, diagrams, histories, photographs, and studies in this record group is the series General Administrative and Project Records, 1919-45 (NAID 562770)​, where a folder entitled “107.5 Colorado River – Corr. re: Employment of Negro Labor 1934 thru,” recounts the event the BOR would call “the elevator incident.”

showing top of the Hoover Dam
This Photograph taken 10 days later shows the Boulder Dam as it would have looked during Pickens’ visit and arrest. (NAID 562823, box 52, album no. 5)
elevator entrance w/ornate art deco design
The Arizona Elevator Tower, as seen in the 1937 Boulder Dam Annual Project History, where the incident took place. (NAID 562787, box 60)

Pickens, who was based in Los Angeles, traveled to Las Vegas in mid-April to visit the local NAACP branch office. Ralph Lowry, the Boulder Dam construction engineer, invited Pickens and his party to tour the dam, giving them special government workmen’s passes. The group arrived at the dam’s Arizona elevator tower for the 12:30 p.m. tour on April 22.

Edgar Long was the BOR staffer manning the elevator that day. In his initial statement of the day’s events, he claimed that there had been too many visitors for one elevator, so Pickens had pushed two women—white women, he took pains to note—aside to go first. Pickens later wrote that there had been enough room in the elevator for everyone. But even if there had not been, his party was at the front of the line when Long ordered them to the back to await their own elevator. Long admitted he never saw their special passes, but because Pickens insulted him he called for help. Ranger W. E. Lukens arrived within minutes and backed up Long, who then refused to allow anyone on the elevator and instead took it down empty. Lukens escorted Pickens and the four other members of his party outside, all the while telling him he was under arrest. Given Lukens was wearing a Deputy U.S. Marshal’s badge, according to Pickens, the group had no choice but to leave. Once outside, the rest of the group was released while Lukens, true to his word, detained Pickens and another man and drove them eight miles back to Boulder City, the federal company town built to support the Boulder Dam.

Pickens reported back to the NAACP, and two days later Assistant Secretary Roy Wilkins wrote Secretary of Interior Ickes in protest. (Archivist note – a preservation nightmare, the BOR glued pages of letters together in this era, so photography was used to capture the second page and resulted in the change in page color)

Brought to the chief ranger’s office, Pickens asked to call Lowry and was rebuffed. Instead, the city manager, Sims Ely, was called. Pickens continued to press his case to the point where the chief ranger bemoaned his “loud talking expostulating oratory” in a subsequent memo. The chief ranger and Ely then offered Pickens another tour, claiming that Pickens had never been arrested per se but rather “persuaded by the officer to come talk things over.” Sim would reiterate this point to Pickens in a later letter but Pickens would have none of it, later writing that the ranger and city manager had clearly realized their blunder but were “not sufficiently honorable or manly” to admit it.

Pickens maintained cordial relations with Ralph Lowry, Boulder Dam Construction Engineer. Here he wrote Lowry of the incident, thanking him for his assistant’s help in giving them a tour after the arrest but also provided his side of the story and anger at his treatment.

Pickens finally got in touch with Lowry’s office staff, who were appalled. Lowry’s assistant, Mr. Littler, convinced Pickens and his group to stay, drove them back to the dam, and personally gave them a tour. As Pickens wrote to Lowry two days later, the party had enjoyed the tour but the incident was not over. Blacks should have equality with other visitors, Pickens noted, and afforded at least the same courtesy granted to foreign visitors who did not help pay for the dam with their taxes. (Foreign visitors were in fact very common and the BOR noted VIPs in the annual project histories, today found in our collection. For example, just weeks before Pickens visited, the President-Elect of Cuba and his entourage toured the dam) Back in Los Angeles, Pickens began pursuing just that.

The same day Pickens appraised Lowry of the incident, NAACP Assistant Secretary Roy Wilkins wrote Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes about it, stating that the group wished to “enter the most vigorous protest.” Pickens also notified his congressional representative, Thomas Ford, who soon wrote the Interior Department in protest. Carl Murphy, publisher of the Afro-American, entered the fray as well, bluntly writing Ickes that Pickens’ treatment was unacceptable and any guilty employees needed to be fired.

Publisher Carl Murphy was kept apprised of the situation and wrote several times – here are two, his initial letter to Secretary Ickes urging an investigation and one to President Roosevelt, after the Interior Department initially concluded Pickens was at fault.

At the dam, Lowry collected statements from Lukens, Long, and other staffers and sent them to acting BOR Commissioner John Page. The statements were all in lockstep, following the same general story of how the “colored man rushed up,” budged the line, and was then loud and abusive. Long went even further, opining that “Mr. William Pickens was looking for trouble.” Two other staffers noted in detail how one man in Pickens’s party kept reaching into his suit hip pocket, as though he was going to “draw a gun or a knife,” although another said the man pulled out a business card before Pickens was taken away.

Statements were taken from all of the Reclamation employees involved in the incident; here is the statement from Edger Long, the elevator operator.

Acting Commissioner Page concluded that Pickens was the aggressor and informed the Secretary of Interior’s office. But not one day later, on May 12, Page heard from Robert Weaver, the Secretary of the Interior’s Advisor on Negro Affairs. The incident had been broached with President Roosevelt, and Weaver requested all related materials, which Page quickly sent. On May 14, Charles West, the Under Secretary of the Interior filling in temporarily for Secretary Ickes, attempted to close the case. As he wrote Pickens, Murphy, and the NAACP, after reading the report and affidavits, it was clear that Mr. Pickens had created a disturbance and no government employees or officials were guilty of discrimination.

With Secretary Ickes out of the office, Under Secretary Charles West was acting Secretary of the Interior. On May 15th he wrote Pickens, the NAACP, and Murphy stating he’d come to the conclusion there was no discrimination that day. This is a copy of the letter sent to Murphy.

However, the case was hardly closed, and on May 18 it all broke open. Murphy complained again, this time to President Roosevelt directly. Murphy then wrote back to West, noting that “the first and last impulse” of employees caught in trouble “is to lie.” He pointed out that he had personally known Pickens for thirty years, that Pickens was not disorderly, and that any confusion had to have been caused by the employees. The NAACP also replied to West, incredulous at his conclusion. Wilkens, again writing for the NAACP, noted that Pickens had been an employee for sixteen years, representing the organization in every state and all over Europe. Additionally, as he was born and raised in the South, Pickens was “thoroughly familiar with the habits and customs of the region.” That he could have caused the disturbance was “preposterous on its face.” Within the Interior Department, Secretary Ickes had returned to these letters on his desk and yet another arrived that day, this time from a Los Angeles City Councilman. He fired off a quick memo to Page asking what was going on, and where was the report. Page informed him West was in possession of the the report and had tried to put the matter to rest, but given the turn the case had taken suggested Ickes designate an independent investigator. Ickes agreed, and Interior Special Agent J. D. Hanley was sent from Chicago to Boulder City to investigate.

Because this inquiry was at the department level, the details are not found in the BOR holdings here in Denver, but possibly in Record Group 48: Records of the Department of Interior held by the National Archives in Washington DC. But a letter from Sims to Page, dating to June 15, seems to hint that the heat was still on. Sims goes into great detail about a group of Black men who had just visited and were effusive in their praise of everyone involved with the dam tour (to the point of almost embarrassing Sims, he saccharinely notes); this was quite unlike “the spirit shown by Brother Pickens.” Sims even included the “autographs” of the men to prove his story.

In addition to the investigation of Boulder Dam staffers that summer, Representative Thomas Ford, also pressed the service as to their anti-discrimination policies towards visitors, as so to prevent a similar incident from occurring again. Page tried to deflect, saying the current orders regarding employment were sufficient. In the back and forth, Ford’s patience appears to wear thin, here in June closing with a curt “Can this be managed?” A draft of a formal order prohibiting all discrimination of visitors appears in the file shortly after.

But the spin didn’t stop the ax from falling. Special Agent Hanley found grounds for Pickens’ complaint and concluded that “discourtesy to certain visitors at Boulder Dam” had occurred. On June 21, the elevator operator Edgar Long tendered his resignation. Ranger Lukens kept his job but received a reprimand from Ickes himself, who wrote that Lukens “acted in such a manner to bring discredit to our service.” That August, Ickes wrote Pickens of these actions and expressed regret over the incident.

Using the results of the independent investigation, Secretary Ickes determined his department was at fault. Here he wrote Acting Reclamation Commissioner Page of his findings and enclosed his copy of the letter he wrote Pickens, apologizing for the incident.

At this point in the files, the matter is dropped, and the topic shifts to housing discrimination in Boulder City in 1937. Pickens later left the NAACP, joining the Treasury Department’s Saving Bonds department.

This essay was based on correspondence and affidavits found in the file “107.5 Colorado River – Corr. re: Employment of Negro Labor 1934 thru,” part of the 3,464-box series General Administrative and Project Records, 1919–1945​, National Archives identifier 562769. This collection is not digitized, for further inquiries, please contact the National Archives at Denver at denver.archives@nara.gov.

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