Many people have some notion of Nevada’s racially discriminatory past—of it being referred to as “the Mississippi of the West.” Many are familiar with the stories of people like Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion whose July 4, 1910 bout in Reno and success in the years to follow led to his arrest on charges of violating the Mann Act, which forbade a person from transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes”—a racially motivated charge that left Johnson embroiled in controversy for his relationships, including marriages, with white women. Others know stories from decades later when famous black musicians were allowed to perform in local casinos but not stay in them. But Nevada’s—and Reno’s—history of discrimination goes far beyond this, having touched the local population deeply. And the legacy left by it can still be felt and seen today, including in the city’s older houses in neighborhoods like Newlands Manor and the documents tied to them.
Today, people may find in the documents they sign when purchasing homes in Reno’s older neighborhoods some disturbing policies. They’re most often contained in documents called Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, CC&Rs for short. The language differs by neighborhood and by the age of homes, but it’s always similar—a prohibition on the sale or occupancy of homes by anyone other than those of the Caucasian race. Of course, these kinds of discriminatory housing policies were made null and void by passage of the Civil Rights Act, and specifically by the Federal Fair Housing Act that was adopted as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act in 1968.
Technically, discriminatory CC&Rs should have been unenforceable as of 1948, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer that while private parties could abide by the terms of such restrictive covenants, they could not seek judicial enforcement of them because it would require state action that would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Regardless, these discriminatory terms persisted in home sales documents and are still found in them today. And although a new Nevada law—which will be discussed in greater detail later in this article—allows homeowners to file a document with their county recorder disavowing such language, the impact can still be witnessed throughout the community—and represents only a facet of a system that worked to discriminate against black people and other minorities for decades on end.
Discrimination beyond the documents
Discriminatory CC&Rs have existed in Nevada since the state’s inception. But in 1933, when faced with a housing shortage, the federal government began a program designed to increase America’s housing stock—and segregate it.
The National Housing Act of 1934, a New Deal program, created the Federal Housing Administration—the FHA—as well as the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. The FHA was designed to provide housing assistance to lower-middle-class families without the money for a large down payment, but only white ones.
“FHA financing was only for Caucasians,” explained Reno realtor and historian Barrie Lynn. “So that was a major disparity right there. Suddenly now you have lower-middle-class Caucasians who are able to buy a home with almost nothing down. But lower-middle-class African Americans and other dark-skinned people couldn’t do the same thing.”
It’s something Lynn says she thinks needs to be made up for even today, but more on that later, also—because FHA financing wasn’t as simple as providing assistance to white people seeking home ownership. It came hand in hand with a policy known as “redlining,” through which the FHA refused to insure mortgages in or even near predominantly minority neighborhoods.
“We did have FHA-approved neighborhoods,” Lynn said. “Westfield Village [near Reno High School] is the most notable. And that would have been hand in hand with redlining, for sure.”
So, with exclusionary CC&Rs in neighborhoods throughout Reno and redlined FHA developments that began springing up in the ’30s and decades to follow, where did minority communities go? In part, this depended on how long they planned to stay.
Seeking a place during Reno’s divorce heyday
Reno is known for having been the “Divorce capital of the world” during a period ranging from the early 1900s through the 1960s. According to Mella Harmon, a local historian and contributor to the Online Nevada Encyclopedia, that’s because prior to the “modern age of no-fault divorce, legal dissolution of marriage could take years, or it was simply not allowed,” and—while a “number of states competed for the nation’s migratory divorce trade and the economic opportunities found in offering relatively quick divorces,” it was in 1931, when the Great Depression was raging, that Nevada “cornered the migratory divorce market by lowering its residency period to six weeks.”
A ONE article by Harmon explains that boardinghouses, hotels and even “divorce ranches”—a dude ranch sort of experience usually reserved for the wealthy—provided housing for those looking to meet the six-week residency requirement, but these places weren’t always open to just anyone, and black people in particular were barred from seeking accommodations in white hotels and were not served in white restaurants.
According to Harmon, a boardinghouse at 539 Sierra St. was known as a “black person’s place,” but few others were hospitable in town, and black women were allowed “at black-run boarding houses where rates are low,” but they “were barred from the swank hotels, dude ranches, and auto courts.”
Black divorce seekers were limited in the places they could shop, the restaurants they could frequent and even where they could work. But their plight was temporary. For black residents intending to stay on, the situation was much more dire, as the history of one of Reno’s first black communities illustrates.
Fighting to build a lasting community
When Helen Townsell-Parker’s grandparents—Ollie and Helen Westbrook—arrived in Reno from Stockton, California, in 1952, they found there were not many options for places to live in the city. However, they met a man named J. E. Sweatt who owned property north of town in an area known as Black Springs. This old, white man agreed to parcel off land into one-third acre lots and sell it to black families. The Westbrooks jumped at the chance and bought their property from him.
In her book, A Cry for Help, Townsell-Parker relates the story of how her grandparents and other black families purchased in Black Springs—a place where they had no electricity, no water, sewer or paved roads—and began building their lives there. Using documents her grandfather fastidiously collected and kept over the course of decades, Townsell-Parker pieced together the story of this community’s struggle and perseverance in a decades-long fight to get for their community the basic things that any citizen expects and put it all into her book. To understand the community’s struggle, its tenacity and resilience, one must read the book. It would be impossible to sum it up in a single newspaper article.
Townsell-Parker details everything from the fight for paved roads and streetlights to the struggle to get adequate water. In the first several years, residents of Black Springs had to journey 16 miles roundtrip into Reno to fill huge barrels with water from the only gas station in town where the owner would allow them to. The community didn’t get running water until sometime in early 1958. And as the community grew, it took another decade of fighting to upgrade the water system. And then there were the roads, which Townsell-Parker describes in her book as often nearly impassable, full of large rocks and potholes the residents would fill themselves with dirt they dug up from around their properties. The roads, too, were a decades-long fight because, even after Sweatt—the property owner—agreed to give the roads over to Washoe County, the county refused to take responsibility for them until they were brought up to its code.
From the most basic needs like water, trash service, roads and acceptable sewer to the standard aspects of most any community—like a park for the children and a community center for gatherings—the residents of Black Springs had to do much of the work and seek the funding for themselves, as both local and federal government agencies put them off, ignored their pleas and threw up bureaucratic red tape at every turn. Were it not for their work, the area wouldn’t be what it is today, what Townsell-Parker’s grandfather—Ollie Westbrook—envisioned: “A better place, a more beautiful place, in which you would be proud to look upon,” as he and his family and neighbors were to live within.
Recognizing wrongs yet to
Stories like that of the Black Springs community and archaic documents like discriminatory CC&Rs that still exist today remind us that the more than 50 years since the passage of the Federal Fair Housing Act has really been just a short time—and that much remains to be done about righting, or at least attempting to make up for, the wrongs of the past.
Senate Bill 117, passed during the last session of the Nevada Legislature, was designed in this spirit. The bill was sponsored by state Senators Julia Ratti and Dallas Harris. It deals directly with discriminatory CC&Rs and was spurred by homeowners’ requests to their elected officials, including Washoe County Recorder Kalie Work.
“When I was running for office, I had a resident contact me,” Work explained. “He was a new homeowner. And he was buying into an older subdivision. And he said, ’Kalie, I’m just so—I’m just mortified. I’m really offended by these CC&Rs that I just had to sign to buy my house. He even had that conversation with his realtor, ’Do I really have sign this?’ And they said, ’Yes, you do.’ So he called me and said, ’Hey, I’d like to really see if we can move this into legislation. That way other people don’t have to feel offended when they’re buying their brand new home.’ So I said, ’Absolutely, I’ll support you on that.’ And SB117 was just a really great bipartisan bill to help solve that.”
The bill resulted in the implementation of a law that allows homeowners to file a single document with their county recorder. It’s called a Declaration of Removal of Discriminatory Restriction. According to Work, the document doesn’t physically strike anything from the historical records, but “just, basically, attaches to and references that original instrument.” It’s meant to help resolve concern’s like those raised by the man who came to her with his dismay over the racist language in his home documents, an experience shared by many home buyers. By just asking around among friends and acquaintances, it’s easy to find people who’ve had the same. Both Rachel Gattuso and Christine Chatigny, who’ve purchased homes in Reno in the last few years had it.
“The CC&Rs came up, and one of them was something about me owning a very, very small plot of airspace around my home—and then the other one was about persons of color being restricted from access if I ever wanted to resell my home, or something crazy like that,” Gattuso recalled. And I think what was the most jarring thing was how much of a juxtaposition this was. This [homebuying experience] was such a simple process up to this point, and then all of the sudden it threw me back 70 years. It was like, ’Whoa! Whoa, how has this never been amended, present day … so this isn’t a part of this language.’”
For Chatigny, the experience was similar.
“I’ll tell you what, the CC&Rs were emailed to me by a woman from the title company, who I hadn’t done business with yet,” she said. “And when I started reading through them, they were obviously old documents. And it had all of these old, historical Reno names. It talked about, I think, the Newlands annex. And I was thinking, ’Well, this isn’t my house.’ My house wasn’t built until 1950, but I think it must have just been—upon rereading it—the land procurement or something. But once I got into the actual rules, which were, like, pages in, there weren’t very many of them and most of them pertained to just not building a second story or not building a shed. And then all of the sudden it said … non-Caucasian.”
Both women were shocked by the language, and, like the constituent who brought the issue to County Recorder Work, both asked their realtors what the discriminatory language was doing there in the first place. But prior to speaking with the RN&R, neither were aware of last year’s passage of SB117.
Lack of awareness about the law is something Work said is also common and something she’s hoping can be remedied.
“I think a big part for us is going to be educating the public on how to look this information up, how to look for this in your CC&Rs, and, if in fact you’re subject to that language, then what you can do to put a new document on record,” she said.
Both Gattuso and Chatigny said they were glad to know the law existed but wished they’d had some heads-up on what they would find in their CC&Rs when signing. Realtor Lynn expressed a similar sentiment, saying she’s glad the law exists and that her clients can avail themselves of it but believes it’s only a small step and one that doesn’t make a material difference in what is still a very real problem that can be seen in today’s home ownership statistics. While 73.1 percent of white Americans owned homes as of the second quarter of 2019, a record low of 40.6 percent of black Americans had achieved home ownership.
“It’s not in your face enough,” Lynn said. “These laws were passed, but it didn’t change business as usual. It didn’t change in the communities how people were treated. It’s like saying, ’OK, you know what? You were forbidden from being a billionaire. You have the right to be a billionaire now.’ And it’s like, ’OK, well how do I do that?’ The scales have to tip in the opposite direction. Equal rights isn’t enough. We have to bolster that with something meaningful.”
Lynn said she believes that “when you really think about all of the effects this has had … we can never make up for the damage—but there needs to be something done, and, obviously, the right people to ask as to what is the way to fix this are the people who were harmed. But certainly there are some ideas, some solutions—down payment grants, tax forgiveness upon a sale. We need to tip the scales in the other direction now and at least try to make up for this, at least make an effort, at least admit that this is a terrible thing that happened, and we’re going to make an effort to correct this.
“I think anyone who has a problem with that needs to understand that 51 years ago was in the lifetime of a lot of people who are still here,” she added. “It’s not too late. I think we need to do something about it before too much longer.”
And she believes we as society have the ability to do something.
“We have a system in place where there is a specific loan system just for veterans,” she pointed out. “We have the infrastructure to implement this, and it should be done through FHA. I think they have the responsibility to do this. It should be done, and it can be done.”