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Las Vegas cafe owner broke barriers as Black female firefighter

Updated February 27, 2021 - 5:16 pm

In a Historic Westside restaurant created to feed beauty school students, and where politicians and Southern food enthusiasts gather, the most interesting story in the cafe might be about the owner.

Trina Jiles, owner of Gritz Cafe, reminisced Thursday about her previous career when she became the first Black female firefighter for Clark County.

“Everything I’ve done up until this point is because an opportunity presented itself,” the Valley High School graduate said Thursday during a virtual discussion hosted by the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office for Black History Month. “I knew I didn’t want fight fire forever. It’s really hard on the body.”

‘Setting the stage for all other Black women’

Jiles, the youngest of six children, was 21 and working as a District Court receptionist when former Clark County Deputy Fire Marshal Samuel Smith approached her about becoming a firefighter. He told her there were no Black female firefighters working for the county.

Smith’s bookstore, Native Son, was at West Monroe Avenue and D Street, until it closed in 2008. Smith provided free math and reading lessons to potential firefighters, including Jiles.

Capt. Michael Holmes, president of the Clark County Black Firefighters Association, also attended classes at Smith’s bookstore and began Black Firefighter Culture, a similar tutoring group, when the store closed. Holmes was recruited by Smith in 1987, months after a lawsuit was filed against the department alleging Black firefighters were experiencing a hostile work environment filled with discrimination, intimidation and racial slurs.

At the time of the lawsuit the association said there were 307 white firefighters and 20 Black firemen. Holmes did not have the current breakdown but said he’s relieved the department has become more diverse.

“Trina coming in as the first Black female of the Clark County Fire Department, it was so important and we made sure we surrounded her with love,” Holmes said Saturday. “We made sure she had some of the best training to try to make a living out of her career. We wanted to make sure that to the best of our ability, while she was at work she was able to enjoy being a professional Black female.”

After testing into the fire training academy, Jiles entered a 20-week academy with 40 men that she called a culture shock. Administrators were facing unprecedented issues by having a Black woman in the ranks.

“The first day, everyone had clean-shaven heads and the captain took a ruler and said, ‘Somebody here doesn’t look the same as everyone else’,” she said. “They were new to having an African American woman on the department.”

Jiles argued Black hair takes years to grow and that she did not have to shave it all to be protected under her helmet. The academy convened a committee and ruled Jiles could keep 2 inches of hair.

She said she knew there were people around her encouraging her, and she recognized during Thursday’s livestream that she was breaking stereotypes with every step.

“My mindset was that I was setting the stage for all other Black women that came behind me,” she said. “By doing that, my attitude had to be in check. If I can show my colleagues that I’m capable, my mother always taught me that they may not like you, but as long as they respect you.”

Clark County Fire Chief John Steinbeck said Jiles still caters department events and keeps in contact with her former co-workers. He commended her for the barriers she broke.

“She paved the way for a more diverse department, which is what’s needed,” he said Saturday. “I’m really grateful for her for that. I’m sure many other women, and Black women, are grateful that she was able to have a great career.”

‘If there’s a will there’s a way’

Jiles, who became a firefighter in 1996, worked her way up to become an arson investigator from 2003 to 2008. During that time, she started considering opening a lunch spot to feed the cosmetology students who had a half-hour break at Expertise Cosmetology Institute near Lake Mead and Martin Luther King boulevards.

She thought about the Southern-style meals her mother often made and how outside of her home, Jiles said there were no good places to eat grits in town. She started fiddling with recipes and opened the doors to Gritz Cafe, 1911 Stella Lake St., in January 2008, next door to the cosmetology school.

“It just goes to show that whatever you want to find out and accomplish in life, if there’s a will there’s a way,” she said Thursday.

The restaurant features food inspired by each Southern state, including catfish, shrimp, fried chicken, pork chops and hot links. The restaurant goes through about 40 pounds of grits a day, she said.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited while campaigning for president in 2016, sitting just feet from a photo of former President Barack Obama. During the 2020 election, Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy II spent lunch on Nov. 3 eating chicken wings with his parents at the cafe.

“On Election Day, you have to go to Gritz,” he told reporters at the time.

For Jiles, it’s become a place where she hopes the community can gather safely as restaurants slowly reopen. She expressed her hope Thursday that other small businesses in the city apply for grants and utilize their local chambers to stay afloat through the pandemic.

Years before opening the restaurant, Jiles told the Review-Journal in 1996 that she was always inspired by her mother’s saying: “If there’s something you want, believe in yourself and strive to do it.”

Contact Sabrina Schnur at sschnur@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter.

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