Romar Tolliver wanted to help educate and empower Black community members, so he rented a space in Reno to open a free bookstore.
Then, at a local gym, he met Donald Griffin, the creator of New Generation D.A.R.E. – a group which helps fight homelessness and youth addiction in the Reno area. They found they had a lot in common. The pair teamed up to expand the bookstore into a bigger idea, creating a place for Black people to gather, learn and support each other.
They needed a name for their brainchild.
“We sat down and thought about what our ancestors went through in Tulsa, Okla.,” Griffin said. “Together, we came up with Black Wall Street Reno.”
Tulsa district inspired program’s name
The name is a reference to The Tulsa race massacre which took place in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31 and June 1, 1921. Mobs of white residents attacked a prosperous Black business and residential district, which was known as Black Wall Street, and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the area.
More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and as many as 6,000 Black residents were held in confinement for days. At least 39 people died in the violence, but scholars say the number of dead may well have exceeded 100.
Tollier and Griffin choose the name not because of the massacre, but to evoke the prosperity that existed there prior to the racist attack.
Minority communities underserved
The Black Wall Street Reno, now a registered non-profit organization, got off the ground in August. Its goal is to meet the needs of local Black people and people from other underserved communities. Through donations and with their own money, the partners provide leadership and educational classes, food distribution, and help feed homeless people.
Black residents account for 2.7% of Reno’s population, according to U.S. Census estimates. Yet, an analysis of Washoe County Jail data by the Sierra Nevada Ally show that 12.9 percent of suspects booked into that facility are Black people. They also have a disproportionate percentage of people affected by homelessness, drug addiction and illiteracy in the overall community.
Pandemic crashes economy
Poverty reaches across racial lines, but minority communities often are over represented in national and local statistics. In Northern Nevada, nearly half of all students are eligible for the federal School Lunch Program. Wages have been stagnant for more than a decade, while rents have skyrocketed. Many families live on the edge of homelessness and the COVID-19 pandemic has cost many people their livelihoods.
Seniors also are an at-risk population in the Truckee Meadows, where one-in-three residents over age 65 is disabled, according to statistics from Nevada Tomorrow, a community data exchange.
As community concerns increase, there are fewer places to turn to for help. The health crisis and economic crash that followed has crippled state and local budgets, resulting in fewer resources available to those who need assistance. Even if the pandemic is defeated soon, it will leave a legacy of greater poverty and despair in its wake.
Making resources available
Toliver and Griffin want to help by creating an environment that strengthens the community and by providing new resources to help people help themselves. “We have a problem here in Reno,” said Griffin. “We want to be the voice that helps change that.”
Both men have been on the other side of prosperity. Each is in recovery from addiction. Griffin was an opioid addict for two decades before turning his life around about four years ago. He said his faith got him through the transition. He and Tolliver said they want to help others recover and live productive lives.
The Black Wall Street Reno is just getting off the ground. Since the opening its doors at 351 S. Wells Ave. Suite 100, the partners have solicited help from local businesses and community members. They also are trying to determine where and how their efforts can do the most good.
Building community support
The Holland Project and the Black Caucus have helped Black Wall Street by providing donations, tabling and outreach. Griffin said they also need folks who can work with the community and help prioritize what people need.
“We want to get to the point where we agree on something,” Tolliver said. “We want to have the ability to take things to the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and say, ‘this is what the community wants.’”
The pair has reached out to KaPreace Young, the president of Northern Nevada Black Culture Society, which provides educational and create cultural events. Young also is a co-founder of Shades of Queen, a mentoring program for Black women.
“The Black community is small, so it’s sometimes hard to gauge what the Black community here wants,” Young said. But she said that the community is supportive of grassroots organizations.
Looking to the future
The Black Wall Street is currently holding leadership classes on Fridays and offering meals each Saturday at “Tent City,” a camp occupied by homeless people behind the Reno Aces stadium.
They plan to apply for grants and eventually make connections with area schools in an effort to help students do well in their classes and in their lives.
For now, their focus is on making the tools available that people can use to get ahead. The Black Wall Street office is full of books and donated clothing. Visitors can stop by to select books, get help building a resume and pick up pointers – and a wardrobe – that will help in job interviews.
They offer peer support groups and book clubs. In addition, Griffin, a Downtown Reno Partnership Ambassador who works with homeless people, helps folks get out of the street life and into recovery programs. He said he will accompany people to substance-abuse peer-support meetings and sit through the meetings with the clients.
“We have an obligation, a moral obligation, to help others,” Griffin said.