There seemed to be no end to the number of people Dolores Feemster could be a mother to.
She gave birth to 12 children in her 89 years of life, but her clan stretched well beyond that.
As a counselor at Hug High School, she helped countless children find a safe place to learn and earn a diploma.
As a community activist she helped galvanize civic leaders to build affordable housing for abused women, senior citizens and families in need.
As a civil rights activist, she marched, painted over racist signs in the night, helped integrate Reno’s schools and volunteered years of service to the NAACP.
So, it’s no wonder that in the hours since her death Friday morning— the day after her 89th birthday— that many are remembering her not only as the Feemster matriarch, but as the Reno “community’s mom.”
“When you think of community involvement, you think of Dolores,” said her long-time friend Bertha Mullins. “When you think of young people, you think of Dolores. Especially when you think of Hug High School, you think of Dolores. Over the years she gave so much.”
Born in Reno in 1929 to a white father and a black mother, Feemster lived briefly in communities throughout Nevada– Winnemucca, Gardnerville, Elko– before she settled in a modest house on the corner of 10th and Sutro streets in northeast Reno.
That small brown house became a neighborhood hub, a landing pad for teenagers, a place for a warm meal and good advice and a headquarters for community organizing.
“It felt like a community center,” said Reno City Councilman Oscar Delgado, who grew up in the northeast Reno neighborhood. “It was the house that never turned anyone away. It was a home that took everyone’s issues in the context that they were real, they were important and that they were important to her and her family.
“One of the beautiful things about Dolores is she took every issue personally and wanted to find a way to help you,” Delgado said. “From connecting you with others in the community that could support you, or just putting her arm around you and saying, ‘Things are going to be OK. I’ll stand with you to see you through it.'”
Fighting racism in a segregated ‘Mississippi of the West’
Feemster’s community organizing skills came early, as she helped fight racism in Reno in the 50s and 60s.
In a 1982 interview with the Reno Gazette Journal, Feemster said it took her a long time to fully understand not only her own heritage, but the harsh racial discrimination suffered by African Americans in Reno.
“For a long time, I knew nothing about black history,” she said. “I was often the only black student in private and parochial schools. And while we studied about a few people, who I later found out were black, no one told me at the time they were. So, it took a long time for me to find out who I was and what my people had done and could do.”
As her roots began to grow in Reno, Feemster dedicated much of her life to the civil rights cause. She spent countless hours as an active member and past-president of the Reno-Sparks chapter of the NAACP.
“She was a very quiet, soft-spoken person, but she was also very persistent in what she felt was right and in doing the right thing,” Mullins said.
In 1984, Feemster told the Reno Gazette Journal she was appalled by signs declaring “No dogs, no (racial slur)” that began to pop up as the Reno’s African American community grew.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Some friends and I spent a lot of time going around painting over some of those signs at night, and when they went back up, we would go back and paint over them again.”
‘She would always take them in’
Feemster worked for the Washoe County School District for 30 years. In the 1970s, she ran the district’s “Enter Group,” an organization that recruited minority teachers and funded a volunteer busing program to help desegregate the city’s schools.
She retired from the district as a counselor at Hug High School, where she took an active role in many of the students’ lives.
“Some of the youth have said that when they didn’t have a place to stay, they stayed over at Mrs. Feemster’s,” Mullins said. “When you hear the young people—they’re all adults now—some of them say, ‘If it wasn’t for Mrs. Feemster, I don’t know where I would be today.'”
Although her small was full of her own children, many young people found it a safe place to stay the night if they needed it.
“Sometimes she’d get up in the morning and kids were there she didn’t know who they were,” Feemster’s best friend Lucille Adin said with a chuckle. “But she would always take them in. With all the kids she’s had, she still cared about so many more. It was absolutely amazing. Everybody knew Mrs. Feemster.”
Adin said she can’t imagine the house on 10th Street standing empty without Feemster making it a home.
“I went to help her daughter do some cleaning, it was the first time, and I’ve been to Dolores’ house hundreds of times, that she’s not being there,” Adin said. “It was just so different. That corner, everybody knows that corner. It’s going to be different.”
Feemster’s community engagement didn’t stop at education and civil rights. Feemster also was a staunch advocate for affordable housing, serving as a board member with the Community Services Agency. The transitional housing complex, DK Horizons, on Sutro Street was named as a tribute to her and former Reno City Councilwoman Kathryn Wishart.
‘She was wanting to make a difference’
It’s been a difficult few years for the Feemster family. In 2014, Feemster’s son, Ronald, died in a garage fire. In 2016, her granddaughter, Eboni, died after an illness. And last year, her son Darryl Feemster died from a stroke.
“Darryl, that was really hard,” Mullins said. “When he did take sick and was in the hospital, she spent most of the time right there with him, day and night.”
Dolores is survived by nine of her children: Lynette Cobb, Elaine Feemster, Carolyn Page, Janice Pickens, Cheryl Young, David Feemster, Lonnie Feemster, Robert Feemster and Gary Feemster.
She was preceded in death by sons James, Ronald and Darryl.
Arrangement for her memorial service are still being made. Andy Barbano, a family friend and fellow community organizer, said he needs to find a venue large enough to handle the expected crowd.
“I think we need a place that can sit 2,000,” he said.
Even as her own health deteriorated and the breast cancer she once kicked returned, Feemster wouldn’t give up her community involvement.
“Even when she was ill, when I was working on NAACP matters, I would pick her up, take her to the meetings. She would make telephone calls. She was still involved,” Adin said.
Asked what drove Feemster to give so much to her community, Mullins said it was just part of her DNA.
“I believe it was her character,” Mullins said. “I never did hear her say what the reason was. To me, it was just a part of her makeup.
“She was wanting to make a difference and she did.”