Black Springs

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. Its original name appears to have derived from “Black’s Spring,” which was first 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 Black 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.

Black Springs in the 1960s

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…

Mt. Hope Baptist Church

The Mt. Hope Baptist Church was founded in July of 1959 and was the second church to be built in the community of Black Springs. Residents say that the building was moved here that year from another location and adapted for this use. Started by A.N.…

Fleeter Turner's Stone House

This small house, constructed of field stone, is one of the oldest structures in Black Springs and may date back to the 1920s. Thurman Carthen remembers it standing when he first arrived in 1956, and believed it to be a well house. Others recall it…

Chatman House

The house at 265 Kennedy Drive is one of the few from the early years that was constructed on site rather than moved here. It likely dates to the early 1950s. Thurman Carthen remembers it as the prettiest one in the neighborhood when he moved to…

Carthen House

J.E. Sweatt sold a parcel in Black Springs, now 295 Kennedy Drive, to Cecil G. and Nola Mae Carthen in December of 1956. The couple was from Oklahoma, where Cecil had been working as a mechanic for a lumber company. In Reno, he worked for many years…

Black Springs Volunteer Fire Department

This modest building was constructed in 1970 to serve the Black Springs Volunteer Fire Department, which had been established in 1956. By the late 1960s, a station in the neighborhood was an absolutely necessity. The Black Springs community had lost…

Black Springs Community Center

Black Springs did not have a community center of its own until 1970, when the neighborhood's youth group, P.O.W.E.R. (People Organized to Work for Equal Recognition) took the lead to establish one. The group had been organized in May of 1969.…

First Baptist Church of Black Springs

We're still piecing it together, but the story of the First Baptist Church appears to have begun in 1952, when three individuals sought support to establish a church and recreational center at Black Springs to service the African American…

Hosea and Johnnie Stevens House

Hosea Stevens bought a lot from J.E. and Dorothy Sweatt in August of 1958. Stevens and his wife, Johnnie, were both natives of Texas, where three of their children were born. Born in 1910, Hosea served in World War II, and in 1946, the family moved…

Osborne House

The Osbornes' house was moved to 290 Westbrook Lane in 1964 from a site around 6th or 7th Street in downtown Reno that was being cleared for the construction of Interstate 80. Phillip Osborne purchased the house at auction for $250 and had it…

Lobster House

The house at 320 Westbrook Lane was the second home that the Lobster family owned in Black Springs. William (Bill) Lobster was the Fire Chief for the Black Springs Volunteer Fire Department for many years. This house is one of the few in Black…

Westbrook House

Ollie and Helen Westbrook were some of the first residents to purchase property in Black Springs from J.E. Sweatt in the early 1950s. They quickly became community leaders and became known to everyone as "Mama Helen" and "Big…

Townsell House

In June of 1956, Jeffie and Carrie Townsell and their children were on their way to Seattle where Jeffie's brother, a merchant seaman, was going to help Jeffie find a job, when they stopped in Black Springs to visit Carrie's parents, Ollie…

Bufkin House

The house where Barbet and Jewell Bufkin lived, at 375 Westbrook Lane, dates to approximately 1940 and was likely moved here from its original location sometime in the mid-to-late 1950s. Additional living space was subsequently added to the rear of…

Finley-Prien House

Douglas and Essie Finley moved into the house at 380 Westbrook Lane in the 1960s. Unlike many of the early houses that were moved to Black Springs from other locations, the original Finley house was built here in 1963. The Finley's son, Donald,…

Washington-Marshall House

J.E. Sweatt sold a parcel of land to Cecil Washington and his wife, Mildred, in December 1957. Cecil had been working in Nevada, and purchased the property in Black Springs while living in Sparks. Once the land was purchased, he moved his wife and…

Willie Stevens House (site)

Willie Stevens had the house at 415 Medgar Avenue moved to his lot in Black Springs in late 1957. Before it was moved there by Dario Bevilacqua, the top of the house was removed, as was customary at the time, in order to avoid hitting power lines…

Pettis House

Ruffen and Gertha Lee Pettis bought a parcel of land in Black Springs, now known as 280 Medgar Avenue, from J.E. Sweatt in December of 1956. The couple had been living in Loyalton, California where their daughter, Bobbie Jean, went to high school. …
SOURCES

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.