Las Vegas Sun

December 12, 2017

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Reno civil rights legend Bertha Woodard dies

Woodard worked as a nurse but dedicated her life to organizing sit-ins and leading pickets to protest racism in northern Nevada. She died Thursday at Washoe Medical Center.

Woodard petitioned the Reno City Council in 1959 to lift a ban on minorities in local casinos and helped lead an effort to remove signs from Reno stores that read, "No Indians, Negroes or Dogs."

In 1961, she attended Governor Grant Sawyer's signing of Nevada's first civil rights bill.

"Reno was once called the 'Mississippi of the West,' and it wasn't because of the river that ran through the middle of town," said Lonnie Feemster, president of the Reno-Sparks chapter of the NAACP and a lifelong Reno resident.

"It was a statement on the social and political attitude toward race, something Woodard spent much of her life fighting."

Woodard had planned to work with a group of local university students this year to compile a comprehensive look of the civil rights movement in Nevada. Feemster said Monday he hopes that project will continue with the help of Woodard's family.

"Aside from her great enthusiasm, the biggest loss to this community is she had so much knowledge and first-hand experience of what happened here," Feemster said. "Even though there are bits and pieces of what went on, we don't have a personal rendition of civil rights in Nevada."

Woodard organized picket lines in front of the Overland Hotel and Harold's Club in Reno, pushing for equal access for blacks who were not permitted as customers at most downtown establishments.

"Blacks were not allowed in casinos except for a couple of places on Lake Street," Feemster said. "Black soldiers at Stead Air Force Base would come downtown and attempt to go to a casino, but they were told they had to go to Lake Street."

Friends remember Woodard's generous nature and boundless energy for the NAACP efforts. Onie Cooper, a former chapter president, recalled he and another friend traveled to Chico, Calif., for a civil rights conference. When they arrived they had no place to stay, but a quick call to Woodard and they found a friendly motel with an available room.

"I don't know where we would have slept if it hadn't been for her," he said.

Woodard's charge against the El Capitan Casino in Hawthorne is a story many like to tell. In the 1950s the casino had the only restaurant in town and denied service to blacks. Those traveling through were not allowed to stop there for food and rest.

"She helped lead the picket line in Hawthorne that eventually led to the casino changing it's policy," Feemster said. "There were a lot of barriers to be broken down and she was critical to that."

A funeral is at 11 a.m. Thursday at Sparks United Methodist Church, where Woodard was a longtime member. Burial will follow at Mountain View Cemetery.

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