Photo Essay: Highlights of Westside Las Vegas, a Treasure Trove of the City's Black History
When many people outside Las Vegas think of the city’s Black history, the careers of iconic entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole, who performed there often, come to mind. But beyond the glitz and glamour of the Strip, Las Vegas boasts a lesser-known local history of Civil Rights activism—and many of its key players lived and worked in a neighborhood called the Historic Westside.
During the 1940s and 1950s, African Americans flocked to Las Vegas for jobs in the booming defense industry. Racist policies permitted by white leaders in the segregated city denied them the right to own homes—except on the Westside, which had long been a multiracial, working-class area. When Black stars like Davis and Cole performed on the Strip, hotels wouldn’t allow them to stay there; instead, they decamped to the Westside. Over time, the area developed into a thriving, majority-Black community, with shops and restaurants lining its main street, Jackson Avenue.
As the national Civil Rights movement gained steam, activism on the Westside did the same. For example, in 1960, Westsider James McMillan, the first Black dentist in Las Vegas, headed an NAACP group that convinced local politicos to desegregate hotels and casinos. Resident Ethel Pearson, who now has a neighborhood park named after her, led a successful fight in 1968 to ensure that a new freeway would provide access between the Westside and downtown. And in 1971, the state of Nevada banned residential segregation, thanks to sustained efforts by Westside leaders.
More recently, years of disinvestment have taken a toll on many Westside buildings. In 2019, the Nevada Preservation Foundation received a $50,000 grant from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to commission an in-depth historic context survey of the neighborhood. Completed this past winter, the survey should help bolster future preservation efforts, which include a program to rehab old houses into affordable housing for the community.
Local preservationists hope to protect the area’s remaining historic fabric, a few highlights of which were captured for this story by photographer Joe Buglewicz. “I think people are really interested in hearing more about the area,” says Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries. “Whenever we talk about it, people are on the edge of their seats.”
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