In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Reno News & Review is profiling some of the women who made their marks on the history of Nevada.
This installment features a prospector from Nicaragua who struck it rich in the high desert, an educator and entrepreneur, a civil rights icon and a suffragette. The vignettes are condensed from biographies provided by the Nevada Women’s History Project. The project has many more biographies on its website, listed in alphabetical order and by the state’s counties.
We’ll be telling more stories about the women who built the Silver State before the end of March.
Fermina Sarras, Copper Queen
Fermina Sarras (1840-1915), who was born in Nicaragua, came to Nevada as a prospector in an age when ladies didn’t wear pants, let alone wander around the desert alone in search of veins of ore. But she was dressed for success: she struck it rich as the “Copper Queen,” and the town of Mina, Nevada, is named for her.
In 1867, Sarras accompanied her first husband, Pablo Flores, to the U.S. with her daughters. Flores’ name vanishes from the public record soon after, suggesting that he died or Sarras separated from him. Sarras was attracted to Virginia City’s Comstock mines, but soon traveled to a newer boomtown, Belleville, in central Nevada. Her first mining claims were for the Amant and the Central American mines in 1888. Many more followed.
After 1900, rich discoveries at Tonopah and Goldfield transformed Nevada’s mining landscape. Investors scoured the state, hoping to cash in on the next bonanza. Sarras’ mining claims attracted attention. Her first sale came in June 1902 when investors bonded 25 of her copper claims at $8,000 each. Sarras became a regional celebrity; newspapers dubbed her Nevada’s Copper Queen.
A new town in the desert
In August 1905, the Tonopah & Goldfield railroad created a passenger and freight terminal north of Belleville in the Soda Spring Valley. The railroad officials named the new town Mina, after Fermina. A month later she sold 40 claims in the area for $90,000; another group of claims sold for $65,000 in 1907.
Between 1988 and 1996, at Giroux Canyon in the Gabbs Valley Range, mining firms produced a combined 299,000 ounces of gold and 644,000 ounces of silver on ground once owned by Sarras. Typically she would insist on payment for rights to her claims in gold. She stashed her wealth in her chicken house — because she later said the chickens always make a fuss if someone approached.
Sarras was known for both her generosity to people in need and for her big-spending habits. When her cache of gold began to dwindle, she would say, “I guess I better get back to the desert,” according to her great grandson, Albert Bradshaw. She would don her overalls, take to the hills again and find another mine. Sarras died in 1915.
Hannah Clapp, educator and entrepreneur
Hannah Keziah Clapp (1824-1908), organized the first private school in Nevada and was the first instructor and librarian at Nevada State University in Reno. She was also one of the founders of the Twentieth Century Club, a progressive Reno women’s organization.
She and her partner, Eliza C. Babcock, also are remembered for winning the contract to build the iron fence around Nevada’s capitol building, an entrepreneurial feat that took some of Carson City’s businessmen by surprise.
Clapp, a teacher and school principal, was 36 when she settled in Nevada in 1860, her home for the next 41 years. She founded the Sierra Seminary and eventually hired Babcock, a Latin and English teacher from Maine, as her assistant principal. They built a home together in Carson City, and their relationship lasted 35 years, until Babcock died in 1899.
Wise investments and travel
The two women made the Sierra Seminary one of Nevada’s most outstanding schools. Their investments in a number of mines helped fund many of their endeavors as well as long trips across the country.
After a cross-county trip in 1876 to the kindergartens in the East, they returned home to Nevada and opened the state’s first kindergarten in the basement of the Sierra Seminary in Carson City. In 1895, after moving to Reno, they persuaded the new Twentieth Century Club to organize the Reno Kindergarten Association. Reno’s first kindergarten soon opened, in the annex of the Bishop Whitaker’s School for Girls, on the site of today’s Whitaker Park.
One of the duo’s most famous business transactions was the construction of the iron fence around the capitol grounds in Carson City in 1875. After they won the contract, the partners ordered the wrought iron from Philadelphia. After it was delivered and erected by local workers, they pocketed a $1,000 profit, to the amazement of some of Carson City’s established businessmen.
“Let there be no further complaints about the non-enjoyment of their rights by the women of Nevada. The contract for the furnishing of iron fencing for the Capitol Square has been awarded to Misses Clapp and Babcock, Principals of Sierra Seminary; their bid of $5,500 in coin for the delivery of the fencing upon the grounds is the lowest by some hundreds of dollars of those submitted.” – Nevada Appeal, May 10, 1875.
After Babcock’s death in 1899, Clapp raised funds to build a new home for Reno’s kindergarten, named the Babcock Memorial Kindergarten, at the corner of Fifth and Walnut Streets in Reno. At age 77 she moved to Palo Alto, to the home where she and Babcock had planned to retire. She died in Palo Alto in 1908, at the age of 84.
Lubertha Johnson, civil rights leader
Lubertha Miller Johnson (1906-1989), was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in Southern Nevada and president of the Las Vegas NAACP. She took part in campaigns and demonstrations, but also had a more direct method of making a point in the period prior to 1960, when Nevada was known as the “Mississippi of the West.”
Johnson was born in Ackerman, Mississippi, in 1906 on a farm that her father had inherited from his father, who had been a slave. She came to Nevada in 1943, by way of Chicago, with a short stint in California. Her family purchased a 24-acre ranch in Paradise Valley and went into the chicken and egg business.
Johnson worked as recreation director of the Carver Park Housing Project in Henderson. She twice served as president of the local NAACP chapter and was a signee of the Consent Decree to end employment discrimination in the hotel and casino industry. She was a member of Gamma Phi Delta Sorority, The National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews), a board member of the Caliente School for Girls and founder of Operation Independence Pre-school Learning Center.
Defying casino policy
She was sometimes compared to the famous educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, in that she had access to powerbrokers and often used that to push for social change. One point she always made in her talks: “Education is the key to independence.” She also was Southern Nevada’s first Black nurse. Her accomplishments with the NAACP included helping to expand employment opportunities for African Americans in the school district, hospitals and hotels. She is also credited with helping to enact open housing legislation and Nevada’s civil rights law.
Prior to 1960, Black people were not admitted to casinos, theaters and hotels. Johnson also took the kind of direct action pioneered by Rosa Parks – she sat down where she wasn’t allowed to sit. Johnson and her friend, Mabel Hoggard, would make reservations for casino shows. Casino security sometimes escorted the women from the showrooms; often they sat through the performances, ignored by the management who didn’t want to cause an incident that might garner bad press for the venue.
“The Negro finds little welcome anywhere. He is barred from practically every place whites go for entertainment or services. He cannot live outside a segregated, slum-like community. He is relegated to the most menial jobs. For the Negro, Vegas is as bad as towns come. … Negroes rate no better than second-class citizenship there. …” – Ebony magazine, March 1954.
Johnson founded one of the county’s first anti-poverty, self-help initiatives, Operation Independence. The effort included the first Head Start program, the Manpower program, and the Operation Independence child development centers and was the first Black non-profit agency to receive funding from the United Way of Southern Nevada. On Feb. 6, 1989, Johnson died in a Las Vegas nursing home.
Anne Martin, Nevada suffragette
Anne Henrietta Martin (1875-1951), was a leader in Nevada’s women’s suffrage movement, an advocate for children’s issues and a warrior for world peace.
Martin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of 19 from Nevada State University in 1894 and by 1897 had another BA and an MA in history from Leland Stanford Junior University. She returned to Reno and founded the Department of History at Nevada State University and was on the faculty there from 1897 to 1901.
She took a leave of absence from teaching and studied at the universities of London, Leipzig and Columbia, and was a student at Chase’s Art School in New York City. She traveled and studied in Europe and Asia.
In January 1910, she was arrested in Great Britain with 114 other women and four men after they went to the House of Commons to support a bill which would grant British women limited voting rights. The same year, the Nevada Equal Franchise Society was established with the aid of Professor Jeanne Weir. Martin was elected president of the Equal Franchise Society in 1912. She organized the campaign that won women the right to vote in Nevada on Nov. 3, 1914.
Working for world peace
Martin was a delegate to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, member of the executive committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and elected national chairperson of the National Woman’s Party and the first Woman’s Party national convention in Chicago in June 1918. She was the first female member of the Nevada Educational Survey Commission in 1915.
She was president of the Nevada Women’s Civic League and penned many newspaper and magazine articles on political and economic subjects and women’s equality. She was also the first state woman tennis champion.
Martin was an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1918 and 1920. She and her mother moved to Carmel, California, in 1921. She wrote magazine articles about women’s equality and was an advocate for children. Martin advocated for local farmers’ markets and was a national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She continued to be active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and campaigned for an Equal Rights Amendment.
In her later years, she spent much of her time in Reno, living at the Golden Hotel and walking over to the Washoe County Library to do research. In 1945, the University of Nevada awarded Martin the degree of Doctor of Laws.
The citation read: “Anne Henrietta Martin…native daughter, distinguished alumnus, student and scholar, inspiring teacher, disciple of world peace, pioneer in the triumphant struggle for women’s rights, leader of womankind.”