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October 1, 2014

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Harrison House, a reminder of Las Vegas’ segregated past, becomes a landmark

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L.E. Baskow

Photos of Sammy Davis Jr. are seen Wednesday, July 9, 2014, inside the Harrison House, where black entertainers and others stayed when Jim Crow-like laws ruled Las Vegas.

Until 1960, black entertainers could perform in Strip resorts but they couldn’t stay the night.

After a show, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Pearl Bailey would be ushered out the back door and driven to the only area of Las Vegas that would house them, West Las Vegas.

Many stayed in the Harrison House, a tiny home that Genevieve Harrison began renting to black entertainers when she moved there in 1942.

Now, supporters are working to make the house a historic landmark.

Harrison House Historic Home

Stanton Wilkerson and Katherine Duncan wave to Metro Police Officer Gordie Bush as they stand outside the Harrison House on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. The home is where black entertainers and others stayed when Jim Crow-like laws ruled Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

The Las Vegas Planning Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved an application to add the home to the Las Vegas Historic Property Register. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the application Aug. 20. If it is approved, future changes to the building will require approval of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. And last month, the Nevada Board of Museums and History added the home to the state Register of Historic Places.

Advocates now hope to get the house on the National Register of Historic Places. Nevada has more than 350 places on the national list, including the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.

The Harrison House is owned by the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce. Katherine Duncan, the chamber’s president, said preserving the building serves as a reminder of the city’s segregated past.

“How will we know what it was unless we save some remnant of it?” said Duncan, who ran for Las Vegas mayor in 2011. “It’s not just about the architecture. It’s about being a people, black people.”

Until the 1930s, Las Vegas’ black population was tiny but integrated into the city’s fabric. Hoover Dam construction drew workers of all races, according to Ward 5’s application.

After the Legislature approved casino gaming in 1931, “neither the new white tourists nor the white dam workers enjoyed the company of blacks as they engaged in the pleasures of Las Vegas,” the application says.

Black homeowners were also slowly forced into West Las Vegas. Desegregation slowly took hold after threats of a protest brought black leaders and casino owners together with mediator Hank Greenspun, the late publisher of the Las Vegas Sun.

In 1960, the “Moulin Rouge Agreement,” ended segregation in Las Vegas casinos.

The Harrison Guest House fell into disrepair in the decades after Harrison’s death in 1957. In 1983, the city ordered the owners to demolish the building. How the building survived that order is not known, according to the application.

Duncan bought the house in 2009 for $32,000 and deeded it to the chamber in 2011.

Today, the 1,700-square-foot home at 1001 F St. sits just west of Interstate 15 in a neighborhood with boarded-up homes and open drug dealing. Duncan acknowledges the house needs “a lot of work.” Holes in the floors have been covered with plywood. One door jamb has been kicked in so many times by would-be burglars, the wood and plaster have been replaced with sheet metal and screws.

“I don’t know how this will turn out,” Duncan said, “if it will have a restaurant inside, if it will be a place veterans can stay (three live there now), or how it will sustain itself. But we have a lot of volunteers waiting to help out.”

She hopes the home will one day help revitalize the area and draw more interest in Las Vegas’ black history.

“Being a black American, I’m concerned about our economic status in the valley and certain parts of the west side, and I’ve seen what historic preservation … can bring back a deteriorated community,” she said. “This property has so much potential to bring together so many people.”

Reach Joe Schoenmann at [email protected], 702-501-2387 or on Twitter @joedowntownlv.

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