Sure, next week’s Emancipation Proclamation Celebration will be a local observance of a key event in American history. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be a celebration of Southern Nevada’s history and a chance to enjoy a bit of musical, recreational and culinary fun, too.
The celebration, which runs Monday through March 30, will offer events that include storytelling, a street fair and a ceremony marking the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s issuing on Jan. 1, 1863, of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered that all people held as slaves within states that rebelled during the Civil War “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Producing the event is the Get Active Foundation, a Las Vegas nonprofit created in 2010 to offer outreach, motivational and skills- and career-training programs to teenagers and young adults.
“Right now, we’re getting it to the stage where we’re trying to raise money to be able to do the things we have in mind,” said Woodrow Wiley, the foundation’s president. The foundation’s plans include creating a TV newscast directed at valley youths and offering job education programs in such fields as fashion design and green technologies.
But, Wiley said, “at this point we’re just trying to raise funds to try to do things — motivational events and things like that.”
Although the Get Active Foundation has been involved in such activities as food drives, the Emancipation Proclamation event will be a means of introducing the foundation and its mission to the community at large.
The event will start with a community cleanup and recycling effort Monday at the historic Harrison House, 1001 F St. On Tuesday, a storytelling session — which will include stories about and tours of the historic Harrison House —will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Harrison House.
On Wednesday, the celebration will feature a “Moulin Rouge Affair” at 4:30 p.m. that will include a “bridge of peace” ceremony, dinner, dancing and exhibits at the Elks Lodge, 4100 W. Charleston Blvd. General admission is $27, and VIP reserved seating is $150.
On Thursday, the Harrison House Golf Challenge will begin at 8 a.m. at Las Vegas National Golf Club, 1911 E. Desert Inn Road.
Then, Friday and Saturday’s schedules are reserved for community gatherings, with Friday’s F Street Fest featuring vendors, rides, entertainment and community resources from 4 to 9 p.m., and Saturday’s Bones &Blues festival from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The weeklong program concludes March 30 with a Gospel Festival that will begin at 2 p.m. at Harrison House.
Sponsors of the Emancipation Proclamation Celebration include Harrison House Inc., the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce, the city of Las Vegas, the Nevada Black Historical Society and Caesars Entertainment. For more information, visit www.harrisonhouselasvegas.org or call Harrison House at 702-331-5511.
Almost all of the celebration’s events will take place in and around Harrison House, which has an interesting past and, organizers hope, an even more interesting future.
The house itself was built in 1942 as a private residence. Then, later in the 1940s, Harrison House began to serve as a boarding house for African-American visitors to Las Vegas who, in the days of segregation, weren’t welcome in Strip hotels, said Stanton Wilkerson, president of the nonprofit Harrison House Inc.
Geneva Harrison, the Harrison House’s original owner, “was an entrepreneurial lady who saw an opportunity to develop what we now call a bed-and-breakfast,” Wilkerson said. “It was basically a home away from home for entertainers.”
Harrison House guests included such entertainers as Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat “King” Cole, traveling black businesspeople and even divorce-seeking tourists who stayed there while waiting out residency requirements. According to the organization, during one week in September 1949 alone, Harrison House’s guests included Sammy Davis Jr., Eddie Anderson (“Rochester” on Jack Benny’s radio, and later, TV show), singer Bob Parrish, nightclub entertainers The Edwards Sisters, a group called the Jubilaires and musician and singer Arthur Lee Simpkins.
Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries, said Harrison House was just one of several boarding houses in the neighborhood during the ’40s and ’50s. But, she added, Harrison House is the only one that’s still standing.
The beginning of the end for Harrison House as a business came, first, in 1955 when the Moulin Rouge hotel, billed as Las Vegas’ first interracial hotel, opened on West Bonanza Road. While the Moulin Rouge turned out to have a run of only six months, the resort did offer visiting black entertainers and tourists “a more upscale place where they could stay,” White said. “They didn’t have to stay in a little boarding house anymore. So the Moulin Rouge was great in a lot of ways, but that also took income away from those smaller (boarding houses).”
Then, with the eventual advent of integration on the Strip, “those businesses disappeared,” White said.
Wilkerson said Harrison House operated as a boarding house probably from the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s.
After having experienced several ownership changes over the years, the property was purchased by Katherine Duncan, president of the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce, which now owns Harrison House. Although the home was vandalized in 2009, its structure is intact.
The house now serves, first, as the home of Harrison House Inc., a charitable organization aiming to share African-American history in Las Vegas and promote neighborhood development, Wilkerson said. Plans are in the works to nominate Harrison House for placement on state and national registries of historically important places.
“We have some short-term goals and we have some long-term goals,” Duncan said. “The very short-term goal is to pursue the engineering and planning to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Then, she said, the goal will be to upgrade the house with the aim of making it green, but without altering its historic character. Wilkerson said the idea is to make the house both “a model green showcase to the neighborhood” as well as a demonstration home and cultural and community resource center.
“What makes our costs a little higher for renovation is that we are being very careful to preserve the historical nature as well,” Duncan said.
Then, in a move that takes Harrison House back to its own history, “we’re looking to operating a tourist attraction here, where people from all over can come to learn about the important history of African-Americans in Las Vegas, take a tour and while they’re here have a fine meal,” Duncan said.
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280