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Saving piece of black history in blighted area would be miracle

The careworn house at 1001 F St. sits as empty as a dream deferred, its doorway open and dark in the middle of the day.

What happens to it next will be remembered either as a supreme insult to the bruised soul of this community, or as a sign of hope for a future in which the stories of all Las Vegans are told with respect.

One of the first pieces of trivia students of black history in Southern Nevada learn is that there was a time legendary entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey filled Strip showrooms but were forced by segregation to sleep on the Westside.

Few things illustrate the mean absurdity of the local civil rights struggle like the image of the great Davis, despite his amazing popularity, infinite cool and consummate Vegas connections, after the late show catching a cab down to 1001 F St. to hang his hat at Miss Harrison’s boarding house.

Perhaps more than any other structure, now that the Moulin Rouge has been reduced to ash and memory, that simple house holds substantial historical significance in a community that buries its past with chilling regularity.

When the house was vandalized last week, its champions at the Uptown Community Development Association and the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce surely were staggered. They closed escrow on the property April 17 and knew they had their work cut out for them. Drug addicts had stripped the copper plumbing and wiring, and the U.S. 95 expansion had walled off F Street from Bonanza Road.

With about $20,000 in donations and other contributions, the historic preservation group went about the daunting task of bringing Miss Harrison’s place back to life. Just recently the plumbing was complete, and the electrical work passed inspection, group leader Katherine Duncan says. Though clearly disappointed, she won’t admit she’s anything less than optimistic about pressing forward with the goal of saving the building as a historical place to be proud of.

“It’s a blow, but it’s not the final blow,” Duncan says.

I have to be candid. Duncan sees potential where I see dreary decay. Miss Harrison’s place is a dump.

I decide not to tell Duncan that, of course, for she refuses to be negative about the building’s chances to take its rightful place as a landmark. There’s too much at stake, she says, to let it fail and fade into the back alley of Westside lore.

Into the early 1960s, the area was shackled by segregation, but desegregation and integration are very different things. Integration, the racial and economic kind, didn’t happen, Duncan says.

The ensuing years have done nothing to improve the neighborhood’s prospects. Blight only begins to describe F Street. The area seems almost war-torn.

“We went into the project too naïve,” Duncan says, explaining that the piecemeal approach to rehabilitating the property probably moved too slowly. “The whole neighborhood needs serious attention.”

But Duncan can’t help campaigning.

“The way it looks today shouldn’t be looked upon with shame but as an opportunity,” she says.

Rebuilding the Westside is an opportunity like climbing Mount Everest is an opportunity. Not that Duncan will admit that. She speaks with passion about the importance of a community knowing its roots and taking pride in its history. She talks about how remembering the past is essential in understanding the present and building the future.

She’s right, of course.

Duncan vows to rebuild what has been lost, and she promises she will never stop fighting to preserve the history of Southern Nevada’s black community.

I don’t doubt her determination.

But at the rate it’s disappearing, I wonder how much history will be left to preserve.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

 

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