The historic Black Springs neighborhood, located approximately eight miles north of downtown Reno, holds immense significance to the history of the Reno-Sparks area. To promote greater awareness and appreciation of that history, this tour has been created in partnership with Our Story, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to “sharing the experiences of the unsung in Northern Nevada.” Other key sources of information are listed below.
Although gaining its primary significance in the early 1950s with the arrival of the first African American families, the neighborhood’s story dates back to early Nevada. A nearby water source labeled "Black Springs" was depicted on a 19th century railroad map. The name's origin is unclear; some say the spring was named for an early area trader named John Black, others for the appearance of the spring's water as it trickled down dark outcroppings of rock. In any case, the first references to the larger area as “Black Springs” appeared in the 1880s. By 1923, a woman named Hannah Bathurst was offering pullets for sale from her Black Springs Ranch, and by 1924 she operated the Black Springs Service Station on the Purdy Road, the precursor to Highway 395, which borders the community on its northeast side. Her business also included a restaurant and dance floor.
Dario Bevilacqua, whose family ran a house-moving business in Reno, recalled moving houses to the area by the 1940s, and the Black Springs Post Office was established in 1947. By 1950, Black Springs was being described as “Washoe County’s new community,” and residents (who were mostly white at the time) built a boys club and tried to get water piped to the area by Sierra Pacific. The small community of Black Springs grew up on both sides of Virginia Street, and soon included a bar, library, post office, gas station, and restaurant, among other businesses.
In 1948, local realtor and insurance agent J.E. Sweatt, a former Nevada State Assemblyman who had chaired the Washoe County Democratic Party in the mid-1940s, began to purchase several large parcels of land a few blocks north of Virginia Street, what became known as the J.E. Sweatt Unofficial Tract. He divided the parcels into lots of approximately one-third of an acre each and began selling them to members of the local African American community. One of his sons later recalled that Sweatt had bought the property with the express purpose of selling it to Black people, due to the obstacles African Americans faced when trying to purchase property in Sparks and Reno.
Developers of many of the housing tracts established within both cities from the 1920s through the 1950s had imposed restrictive racial covenants that expressly prohibited selling or even renting property to anyone who was not white. By the mid-1950s, a number of Black families had purchased lots from Sweatt. who appears to have been the only white landowner at the time to sell significant amounts of property to the Black community.
Because the land was outside Reno city limits, there was no basic infrastructure in Black Springs when the new owners purchased their parcels, meaning no water, sewer, street system, trash collection, gas lines, curbs, gutters, or sidewalks. Electricity was available from the development already in place along North Virginia Street, just to the south. It was obvious that the property owners would need a water system in order to live on the tract. Sweatt initially provided water for the new residents himself, fronting the money for pipes, storage tanks, and whatever else was needed to bring in water from a source in the hills to the west, possibly Black’s Spring or a nearby reservoir.
Since most of the Black property owners could not obtain bank loans to build or buy homes due to longstanding discriminatory lending practices, many relied on acquiring older Reno houses that were being sold or otherwise removed to make way for development, and moving them to Black Springs along with various wooden shacks and sheds. All had to rely on outhouses at first due to the lack of sewage facilities, and they hauled water for drinking, cooking, and bathing until the water system was functional.
Living conditions were very poor until the community organized to secure needed improvements. Ollie and Helen Westbrook, who bought their land in 1952 for $500, formed the Civic Improvement Corporation in 1954. By mid-1958, residents had running water inside their homes and no longer had to haul water from Reno. By the early 1970s, thanks to the efforts of the Westbrooks, Thurman Carthen, and many other members of the Corporation, who worked in coordination with Washoe County, the situation significantly improved. Trash dumps were removed, the water system was upgraded, streets were paved and renamed for prominent Black figures, curbs, gutters, and gas lines were installed, and a park was established. By 1977, the water system was supporting 57 homes.
Many members of the families who had moved to the community in the 1950s were still living there in the 2000s. Some purchased additional lots over time and rented out some of their houses. At the community's request, the name of the neighborhood was changed to Grand View Terrace in 1990.
Locations for Tour
Black Springs, Nevada--A Study in Perseverance. Our Story, Inc. website.
Furniss, C. Lynn and John W. Snyder with contributions by Lizzie Bennett. An Architectural Survey and Evaluation Associated with the Reconstruction of US 395 Freeway from I-80 to the Stead Interchange, Reno, Washoe County, Nevada. Prepared by MACTEX Engineering and Consulting, Inc., October 2009.
Hinman, Debbie. “Black Springs: A Colorful History,” FootPrints Vol. 13 No. 1, Winter 2010.
Townsell-Parker, Helen, A Cry For Help: A Chronological History of a Black Community in Northern Nevada. 2010.