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Sources for research on the 20th century African American experience in Reno

African American citizens picketing for Civil Rights

Special Collections

Special Collections, on the third floor of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, houses both primary and secondary materials on Nevada history topics, in a variety of formats. University Archives is located within Special Collections, preserving and providing access to the history of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Special Collections is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Check our schedule for holidays.

Research staff are available during open hours for consultations about topics and sources. Email us with your questions and requests or call us at 775.682-5665.

The Nevada Historical Society

The library at the Nevada Historical Society, at 1650 North Virginia St. (just north of the UNR parking office and West Stadium parking garage entrance) has rich collections of manuscripts, photographs, and other materials for the study of Nevada history. They welcome UNR student researchers during the hours of 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call the library at 688-1190 ext. 227 or email the librarian, Michael Maher.

During the first two thirds of the twentieth century, African Americans and members of other ethnic minority groups faced hostility and discrimination when trying to settle in Reno, Nevada. Not surprisingly, the permanent minority population remained small during that time, but members developed and maintained a close-knit and self-sufficient community. It was not until after laws changed as a result of the civil rights movement that conditions for African Americans living in Reno slowly began to improve. Activist groups in Reno such as a local chapter of the NAACP were a key part of the movement that brought about social change on the local level. Community organizers have continued to work tirelessly on civil rights issues.

Reno's economy during the twentieth century was largely based on tourism around industries built on activities that were illegal or more heavily regulated in other states, such as gambling, quickie divorces, prostitution and boxing. During the first six decades of the century, a thriving entertainment scene also attracted tourists. African American residents were not welcome in most white-owned establishments except as entertainers, so minority entrepreneurs opened their own casinos, hotels and restaurants that catered to "all races" in the area around Lake Street and Commercial Row in downtown Reno. A significant number of African American tourists patronized these establishments, supporting a segregated economy. Some African American writers who visited Reno have remarked that they had never experienced so much institutionalized racism anywhere else in northern or western states. Of course, there were exceptions to racist practices, and exceptional people who crossed the color lines, but materials in Special Collections document, without a doubt, a Reno paradox: a very open society in some ways that was very closed in other ways.

Nonetheless, Reno's African American community has overcome major obstacles and many, many individuals have met difficult challenges to become leaders in the community at large. Theirs is a legacy to be proud of.

Note: Just as minority populations were "hidden" in the city of Reno, some of their stories are somewhat hidden in the archives. Please consult with Special Collections staff.

1941 UNR Football featuring Marion Motley, one of the first four African Americans who broke the color barrier in the NFL

Subject Guide

Donnelyn Curtis's picture
Donnelyn Curtis
Special Collections, 3rd Floor, MIKC
Room 216
775 682-5668; 775 772-3957