Thomas Detter was a late 19th century African American businessman, Methodist minister and civil rights advocate who lived in the mining regions of Eastern Nevada, Idaho, California, and Washington. Born as the son of a freemason in Maryland during the late 1820s, Detter left Washington, D.C. at the age of 21 and headed west where economic prospects from the booming mining industry of the Sierra Nevada existed and eventually settled in San Francisco in 1852. Trained as a barber, and eventually owning his own barber shop business, Detter eventually moved to Sacramento, California, and served as an elected Sacramento County delegate to the Colored Citizens for the State of California Convention.
Detter’s early success in business and politics afforded him the opportunity to attract free African Americans to migrate to the west and form communities. From 1859 to 1869, after leaving California, Detter travelled to Lewiston, Idaho Territory; Bannock City, Idaho Territory; Walla Walla, Washington Territory; Idaho City, Idaho Territory; and finally settling in Elko, Nevada in 1869. As a correspondent for the San Francisco Elevator and the Pacific Coast Appeal, Detter described the West and highlighted the economic opportunities that existed for African Americans in the region. Detter’s columns also addressed the pressing social issues facing African Americans during the late 19th century. Topics included public education for African Americans and voting rights.
In addition to writing for the San Francisco Elevator and Pacific Appeal, Detter is also considered one of the earliest African American authors of the West. Nellie Brown, or the Jealous Wife with other Sketches was published in 1871 and offers an insight into Detter’s analysis of society in the United States. In one excerpt referring to Boise City, capital of Idaho Territory, he states, “Many of its citizens are afflicted with the terrible disease of Negrophobia. The very air seems to be pregnated with the disease. A respectable colored man can scarcely get accommodations at any of the hotels and restaurants.” Through his fictional writing and accounts of discrimination Detter’s insights serve as pioneering early African American social criticism in the Western frontier.
In 1876 Detter married Emily Brinson in Eureka, Nevada. He remained in the city until 1884 when he represented the African American people of the state of Nevada at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans, Louisiana. There is no known reference to Detter after that date.