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The Landmarks Of Southern Nevada's Black Community

Einbierbitte, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Harrison's Guest House

Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries talked to KNPR's State of Nevada about some of the important landmarks for the city's Black community.

Discussion Highlights:

Harrison House:

It was a boarding house on F Street in the Historic Westside that was built in the 40s. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places because it is the last of the homes that were used by Black entertainers and visitors to Las Vegas who could not stay at hotels on the Strip and downtown.

“People like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, and other names that we would recognize today as renowned entertainers of the 40s, 50s and 60s. That’s where they stayed because they could not stay at the Dunes, the Flamingo, the Sands, the Desert Inn.”

African American entertainers would have to enter the hotel-casinos they were headlining at through the backdoor and make their way through the kitchen and back of the house to the stage areas.

When their show was over, they were either driven or drove themselves back to the boarding houses they were staying at on the Westside. There was a small corridor of Black-owned businesses along Jackson Avenue that they could go to, including clubs at which they could gamble and dance.

Children living in the area would know when famous entertainers like Nat King Cole were staying there. They would walk in front of the house and engage with the entertainers sitting on the porch. Cole was known to talk to the children about their grades and sometimes give them money.

Berkley Square:

“Berkley Square is that middle-class housing development. Built in 1954 and 55 and opened in 1955 for occupancy. It is very significant to the African American community because those 148 houses were designed by Paul Revere Williams and it was financed partially by an African American person named Thomas Berkley from Oakland, California.”

Berkley Square is the first housing development in Las Vegas that was partially financed by and designed by African American men.

The developers were able to get financing through the Federal Housing Authority, which was rare for African American Communities. It wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act that passed in the late 60s that African Americans could get help financing their homes through FHA.

“But with some miracle, probably having to do with Thomas Berkley and the other people that worked to finance it – Edward Freeman and Jay Byrnes– somehow they got FHA financing.”

Berkley Square gave middle-class African Americans a place to buy a decent home. Airman from Nellis Air Force Base bought homes there along with the first Black doctor and the first Black dentist in town.

It became a real community and was the place where many Black community organizations started.

Westside School:

The first building at the Westside School was built in 1923. It was one of the first buildings in the Clark County School District. Another building was added later in the 1920s and then another was built in 1948

“It shows the importance and the growth of the Black community because at first Native Americans, some White students as well as Black students attended school there and then you see in 1948 because of that World War II migration that so many Blacks came into Las Vegas and now all of those Blacks are living on the Westside, another school building had to be constructed.”

Westside School/Photo by: s.savanapridi/Flickr/City of Las Vegas PIO office

The school served the Black community for years. It closed in 1967 and fell into disrepair until the city of Las Vegas restored it in 2015.

“It’s good to see that the community can use this again for all kinds of training activities. The Black radio station is located there and has lots of space for nonprofit organizations.”

The school is just a half-mile from the growing business district in downtown Las Vegas.

“I’m hoping to see some businesses going into that location. I love to be able to go in and sit out on those beautiful grounds and have lunch there. Hopefully, a restaurant will go in. I just think it would be wonderful.”

Legacy Gardens:

“The Legacy Gardens is a piece of property donated by the county. It happened under Lawrence Weekly [former Clark County Commissioner]. He and [current Las Vegas City Councilman] Cedric [Crear] came up with this plan. The county donated the piece of property. The city will maintain it through parks and recreation. It is a park that is located right there near the FBI building, not that far from the Starbucks on the corner of Martin Luther King [Boulevard] and I think the street is Mariah.”

The area is currently a vacant lot, but the process is underway now to turn it into a park that will honor the pioneers of the Historic Westside community. The community has already decided on the first 38 or 39 people that will be honored with plaques around the park.

It is set to open in late 2022.

The grounds of the park will be etched with the original layout of the Westside, featuring etchings of the original businesses.

The plaques located around the park will give the history of the people who helped make the area what it is today.

“It’s going to be like a piece of art”

Claytee White, Director, Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.