Growing up Feemster
Lonnie Feemster is one of late community leader Dolores Feemster’s 12 children, who are part of her legacy. He is a past president of the local branch of the NAACP.
What was it like growing up Feemster?
That was just what I was thinking about before you [arrived]. When I was 4 or 5 years old, living on Montello Street, walking half a block to Sally Maldonado’s little grocery store to get something or other. … It was a good neighborhood, mainly Italian and African American families. There was segregation. We kind of lived in the low income area. There were well-to-do Italians, but a lot of them were just average working class folks—and that was where African Americans and Italians lived, over in that area. A lot of the homes had stills and wine vats and wine cellars where they’d make bootleg liquor. My grandfather was involved with the trade, from what my mother told me. … We moved into several houses. One time we lived right across the river, which is kind of like the Mason/Dixon line of Reno. There weren’t many blacks allowed on the other side of the river in the south part of town or the west part of town. … We made up names for the houses. … One [house] was called the Paper House because we temporarily lived in a little one-room tool shed or garage—no, it wasn’t a garage, it was more or less a storage shed or something out behind the back of a house on Elko [Street]. And it had newspapers on the wall, which I thought was fascinating. It had comics up there and things. I still hadn’t started school yet. It didn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom. … You’ve go to keep the wind from blowing through the cracks in the boards or the wall. Then we moved to the Rat House.
Your adolescence was in the 1960s.
I graduated from Reno High in 1967. … We moved to East Tenth Street when I first attended high school … and they zoned the low-income area that most Africa Americans lived in for Reno High, which was one of the highest-rated, most influential schools. If you look at the deeds of Westfield Village, across the street from Reno High—a lady called me years later when I was a president of NAACP. She said, “I looked at my deed, and it says all of the blacks have to be out of the neighborhood by dark.” Well, I didn’t know that at the time.
Your mother was involved with the NAACP in the 1960s. What was that like for you? Were you excited? Scared?
I wasn’t scared too much. We had a few run-ins at Reno High—the white kids and the black kids—and each side would choose champions, and there would be fist fights. … Fortunately, I had four brothers, so I was used to rassling all of them that were able to rassle at one time, so I was pretty good. I could get you tied up so you couldn’t move. Nobody would win the thing until you agreed to a peace treaty. … Most of my memories were of fun. It was the Motown period.
Everything we hear is that your mother’s house was a welcoming place for kids outside the family. Did that deprive you of time with your mother?
Always, there were many kids in the neighborhood. Kids would come over and go to sleep. Like, it didn’t matter, there were so many kids we didn’t know what to do, so we’d just play. … It was like a family exchange bureau. And then as I got older, my mother would have college students on the holidays.