Black Springs in the 1960s

A decade of challenges and successes

This site is part of the Black Springs tour, a partnership with Our Story, Inc. Visit the Tours page for the tour introduction and complete list of sites.

The Black Springs community faced serious challenges in the 1960s as
it became the target of campaigns to clean up what the local government and media often labeled "blight" and an "eyesore" while its residents were still struggling to establish basic services, including paved roads, a sewage system, and an upgraded water system.

At the time, the houses were still served by individual septic tanks and cesspools. Washoe County employees would not travel along the roads to pick up trash. And yet the County refused to pave the roads until the properties were brought up to its specifications, which included widening the streets, establishing proper drainage along the sides, grading them, and filling them with gravel. To add to the problem, the County had deemed the assessed value of the properties to be too low to warrant the creation of an assessment district (because the cost to the owner could not legally exceed the value of any property in the district).

In July 1967, the community formed its first Outreach Center, whose workers would be the voice of the people of Black Springs involving issues like property cleanup, education, housing, youth, and special services. Helen Westbrook took the lead outreach role for many years. And in March of 1968, residents formally organized the Black Springs Civic Improvement Association, which became a catalyst activating the forces of community.

In April of 1968, the neighborhood faced the threat of complete obliteration as the County Commission voiced its support for a proposal to use federal and state funds to build a "model area" on Bureau of Land Management land located adjacent to Black Springs, move the neighborhood residents to new low-cost housing there, bulldoze their existing community, and construct an industrial park in its place. The community flatly rejected the proposal, and in December of 1968, Ollie Westbrook wrote a letter to the County Commissioner's office that he titled, "A Black Springs Cry for Help." The powerful letter outlined the struggles the community faced, the humiliations and injustices they had repeatedly endured, and the responsibility that lay with the County government to address the community's longstanding needs.

The letter made an impact, and the year 1969 was an eventful one. In January, a VISTA worker, Andy Gordon, was sent to the community and worked closely with residents to apply for various funds and resources. In May, the neighborhood's youth formed their own group, which they named P.O.W.E.R. (People Organized to Work for Equal Recognition). After a series of destructive fires, the neighborhood organized the Black Springs Volunteer Fire Department, and the following year, they constructed a fire station building and secured the use of a fire truck from the State Forestry Department. Andy Gordon and P.O.W.E.R. put in a request from the State Highway Department for a house that could be moved to the neighborhood for use as a community center, and land was donated to create a park where it could stand.

In June of 1969, the residents of Black Springs submitted a successful request to the Washoe County Planning Board to change the names of the neighborhood's streets to reflect figures of particular significance to the Black community. Main Street became Kennedy Avenue; North Street became Westbrook Lane; Eugene Street became Medgar Avenue; Mary Street became Coretta Way; and East Street became Malcolm Avenue. Although there was much more to be done, the decade had brought significant progress to the community.