As Reno grew to become the Biggest Little City in the World, it had to outgrow prejudice and racism that confronted visitors to Nevada — the so-called “Mississippi of the West.”
The Black community’s response to systemic discrimination was led by activists who pushed back against racism through service in organizations, health care and businesses.
Many of those activists were women of color. In honor of Black History month, here’s a look at some of those women who fought against discrimination and for civil rights in Reno-Sparks.
NAACP founder’s constructive action
When Alice Lucretia Smith, born in Mississippi to parents who were children of slaves, and her husband Al moved to Reno in 1938, they saw signs in local restaurants reading “No Indians, dogs or Negroes Allowed.”
The couple took positive steps to combat those attitudes by founding the Reno-Sparks branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1945. After Al was denied care at the Reno Veteran’s Hospital because of his race, the couple helped establish an American Legion post for black veterans.
When her husband died unexpectedly in 1946, Alice Smith refused to be ruled by grief and bitterness. In a 1978 newspaper interview, she said “Instead of wasting time with that foolishness, I can do something constructive.”
Among many charitable activities, she volunteered for the American Red Cross in Reno for 25 years and served as a board director. She was a charter member of the Nevada League of Women Voters.
Among other awards, she was chosen 1975 Woman of the Year by Sparks Business and Professional Women’s Club and received the 1972 Service to Mankind Award from the Sierra Nevada District of Sertoma International. In a final accolade, Washoe County School District named an elementary school in Golden Valley for her in 1989, a year before her death.
Social services initiatives benefit everyone
Bertha Mullins’ family moved to Reno after their father found work (and discrimination) in Hawthorne, NV during the World War II era. She graduated from Reno High School and attended a few classes every year at the University of Nevada, Reno, earning a bachelor of science degree in the early 1980s. Mullins became a licensed practical nurse and helped develop and implement a community health center for low-income and disadvantaged families in northeast Reno and a podiatry clinic for fixed-income senior citizens. Her work at the Community Services Agency for more than a decade facilitated a Head Start program, a youth program, a weatherization program and a homeless shelter intake.
Mullins also made a career in banking education with American Federal Savings and Loan and later with Wells Fargo. She provided financial literacy education to groups and one-on-one.
“Anything we can do to help one another benefits the whole,” Mullins said in a 2018 interview conducted by Patti Bernard of the Nevada Women’s History Project, available on the project’s website.
Activist targeted big events
Bertha Woodward purchased a home in Reno/Sparks as a 34-year-old single black woman in 1950, a noteworthy occurrence for the time. “As a civil rights activist, Woodward spent her entire adult life fighting racism and negative social and political attitudes for all people of color,” according to a new biography soon to be posted on the history project’s website.
In 1959, area activists including Woodward asked local and state governments to ban discrimination during the 1960 Winter Olympics held at Squaw Valley ski resort (now named Palisades Tahoe to eliminate a racist term that offends Native Americans). Later, she joined “sit-ins” and picketing against Reno businesses and casinos that practiced discrimination against blacks.
In 1983, at the age of 67, she attended the 20th Anniversary March in Washington, D.C., commemorating her participation in the historic 1963 March for Freedom led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the nation’s capital.
Woodward was honored for her persistent activism for civil rights by Governor Grant Sawyer who invited her to be present when he signed Nevada’s first civil rights law in 1961 and the Nevada Civil Rights Act of 1965. In 1981, she received the Distinguished Nevadan Award from the University of Nevada Board of Regents.
Helping others in Northern Nevada
Other female Black activists in Nevada and Reno history include Evelyn Mount who held holiday food drives for area residents for many years. She grew up in Arkansas where her grandparents taught her the importance of giving to others. In her Nevada Women’s History Project interview, she said “We learned never to celebrate on the (holiday), but the day after. We could not eat unless we gave a report that our neighbors down the street, around the curve, had food to eat.” To honor her efforts, the Northeast Reno Community Center bears her name.
Lucy Bouldin started her teaching career in 1957 in segregated schools in Virginia. Bouldin and her husband loved gambling in Nevada and retired to Virginia City Highlands. While a substitute teacher in Virginia City, she was asked to take charge, “temporarily,” of the public library housed in the new high school building, a job she held from 1989 to 2012. Dedicated to the Episcopal Church, she played organ for 11 years at churches in Reno and Virginia City. Her philosophy was to spend each day with a smile and do what you can to help someone else.