Dig hopes to document African-American roots

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Historical artifacts rolled to the surface in the wake of the bulldozers as they peeled away the asphalt from the parking lot behind the Bucket of Blood Saloon on Virginia City's D Street Thursday.

Archaeologists, students and historians alike graced the small crowd that gathered to watch, and anticipation among the group was almost palpable as some scrambled for containers to hold their finds.

The parking lot was the site of the Boston Saloon, known during the 1860s and 70s as the watering hole and social center for Virginia City's black population.

As such, it's a rare commodity.

Archaeologists have worked for decades on African-American sites east of the Mississippi, but there are few in the West and hopes here among historians and archaeologists are high.

". . .I hope this site can give us a new insight into the African-American experience. We often think of the founding of the region as a white phenomenon.

"Historical documents tell us of other groups, but the records don't give insight into what their lives were like," Ron James, Nevada historical preservation Officer said. "Archaeology can give us a vivid picture of what it was like to be an African-American in one of the most significant towns in the American West.

"The excavation at Piper's Opera House produced 100,000 artifacts. There's no reason to believe that won't happen here."

Elmer Rusco, professor of political science at University of Nevada, Reno and author of a book about the blacks in Nevada, agreed.

"There was a black population on the Comstock, but there hasn't been a lot written about them," he said, noting blacks have been much neglected from the standpoint of Nevada history.

"The test digs for this project turned up a lot of material," Rusco said. He said the process is arduous, so it will be awhile before any real conclusions can be drawn.

The Boston Saloon was owned by African-American William Brown, who first worked as a bootblack or street shoe shiner in Virginia City around 1861. From Massachusetts, he first established the Boston Saloon on North B Street but moved it to a more prestigious part of the downtown district at D and Union Streets.

Rusco noted that while not many blacks were highly educated, these previous slaves had an occupational skill base and many of their numbers were barbers and small businessmen.

The black population of about 100 strained against prejudice, but they also had some success stories: Amanda Payne owned a boarding house and eventually opened up a restaurant and saloon, and Dr. W. H. Stephenson had a medical practice.

"Economic success was an uphill battle with overtly racist undertones and laws," Kelly Dixon, administrator of the Comstock Archaeology Center said, noting that when Brown was called to jury duty, a Storey County judge said that blacks couldn't serve.

Dixon will supervise the dig, sponsored by State Historic Preservation Office and the Comstock Historic District Commission, from July 10 to August 10. About 16 students from the University of Nevada will participate.

Funds come from students' tuition, Storey County and grants through Nevada Historic Preservation. The budget for the excavation is $60,000.

The land, owned by the McBride family, is the back parking lot of the Bucket of Blood Saloon and will be repaved after the dig.


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