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Remembering Reno's Critical Civil Rights Campaign

A black and white photo of a man sitting at a desk turned to his left, shaking the hand of a man standing. Seven other people stand behind the two men shaking hands, all formally dressed.
Courtesy of Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno
Bertha Woodard (in white) accompanied by other members of the NAACP attends the signing of Nevada's Civil Rights Act in 1965 by Governor Grant Sawyer.

The federal Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, but for years before that, activists across the country were campaigning for equal rights in their own communities. Historian Alicia Barber takes us back to one important Reno campaign in this episode of “Time & Place.”

In the spring of 1961, Nevada’s state legislature was considering a bill to establish a state Commission on the Equal Rights of Citizens. It was the latest in a long series of Civil Rights bills since 1939 that had been proposed but never passed.

Discrimination was widespread in Nevada, affecting everything from housing to employment. Many restaurants and casinos wouldn’t even allow African Americans inside. And the Northern Nevada chapter of the NAACP was committed to getting this bill through.

Bertha Woodard and several other members were picketing a few downtown Reno businesses that opposed the civil rights bill when they decided to get a bite at the café of the Overland Hotel. The hostess refused to seat them. Woodard appealed to the manager, two city council members, and the mayor, but no one managed to do anything.  She later explained how Charles Kellar, a Las Vegas attorney in town to help organize, came up with a plan.

"That night we had a NAACP mass meeting over at the Baptist church and Charles Kellar told us that he wanted everybody to meet him at the Greyhound bus station at eight-thirty; we were going to stage a sit-in. And he said he wanted everybody to bring a newspaper with them" Woodard recalled.

The next morning they all met at the station and then walked next door to the Overland with their newspapers. 

"The strategy was to fill up the counter first and then the tables. And we had that place just covered. The waitress came out and she said, 'We can’t serve you; the stove is broken'," Woodard explained.

The wait staff put all the food away, hung a “closed” sign on the door and then locked it, with the protestors still sitting inside.  Since that was a fire hazard, Kellar told one of them to go call the fire chief, Elmer Briscoe.

"Chief Briscoe came down expecting a riot. When he got down there, everybody was just reading the newspaper" Woodard stated.

Reading the newspaper wasn’t a crime, so the doors were unlocked, and the crowd that had gathered slowly dispersed. The peaceful protest was front page news, and just days later, the bill passed. Nevada wouldn’t adopt its own comprehensive Civil Rights Act until 1965, but the creation of the Equal Rights Commission was a critical first step.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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