Local NewsBridging the Divide


Las Vegas' Black History preserved through the Harrison House

Posted at 8:05 PM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-15 01:48:39-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — An important piece of Black history still stands tall on Las Vegas' Historic Westside.

The Harrison House was a place where black musicians and performers would stay after being told they weren't allowed to spend the night on the Las Vegas Strip.

Today, the Harrison House symbolizes "protecting the past and preserving the future." That's the motto, as the home has now been transformed into an educational center. Its current owners hope this piece of Black history helps newer generations learn for years come.

The grand tour begins outside of the home, where you have a clear view of the Bonanza bridge that reads, "Historic Westside."

"Bonanza Road was the legal boundary between the Black and the white community during the segregationist period of Las Vegas," explained Katherine Duncan, a historian and the executive director of the Harrison House. "If you were Black, you were not welcome or tolerated past that bridge."

Today, though the Historic Westside is no longer legally segregated. It is still home to many black families, some whose ancestors passed down the land for generations.

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In those days, if you were a Black artist or performer, the Harrison House was the place to be.

"It's a gathering place for famous entertainers who would be performing at the Sands hotel or the Tropicana, but weren't allowed to stay there," Duncan said. "So, Mrs. Harrison opened up a guest home for those entertainers, and that's what makes Harrison House unique. It was famous for visitors like Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Joe Lewis."

Now, the Harrison House sits along the Pioneer Trail, a relic of the Black excellence of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Its history has been preserved through the advocacy of Duncan and others. Still, many questions loom as to whether the home will continue to stand the test of time.

"How do we sustain the house until the future? Like, who pays the bills? What happens here?" Duncan said.

Similar questions extend to other historic properties in the neighborhood.

"Are they important, historic buildings, or should they be torn down?" Duncan said. "Those are the kinds of questions we're grappling with today."

If you had come into Harrison House in 1940, you would have been brought into the sitting room. This was the exterior room of a standard of the 1942 house, Duncan said.

"So in those days, if you got into a person's sitting room, they would talk to you and get to know you. If they liked you, then they would invite you over into the living room. So, let's go in the living room," Duncan said.

Walking from the sitting room to the living room, it's hard not to admire the photos on the wall of stars like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nat King Cole, and old memories of the Moulin Rouge that show the rich history the property at 1001 N. F Street holds.

"It was listed in the Negro motorist traveler's guide in 1949," Duncan said. "So, she (Mrs. Harrison) had to be doing well to be able to advertise to travelers across America."

"The Negro Motorist Green Book" was used by Black travelers all across the United States in the mid-'40s.

"It was just on the wrong side of town, so they came here because they could afford it, honestly, and Mrs. Harrison didn't have cheap rates," Duncan said. "She ran a first-class guest house. So she was, you know, high society."

In those days, Black entertainers weren't welcome to stay on The Strip, so if you wanted to sit down with Sammy Davis, Jr. or hang out with Harry Belafonte, you had to leave The Strip, too. That brought other well-known figures to the Harrison House.

"Of course, Marilyn Monroe, and I mean, all of these people would come through Harrison House to be with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Harry Belafonte and Joe Lewis. This is where they were," Duncan said.

"Having a one-bedroom suite with its own self-contained shower and walk-in closet — I mean, this house was an amazing home," she added. "It had all of the amenities that any Las Vegas Strip hotel would have."

Over time, the Historic Westside has seen its ups and downs, including some wanting to get rid of the house.

"'All those old raggedy buildings over there,'" Duncan said. "I've heard that a lot. 'Why don't you just tear that stuff down and start over?' And I go, 'Oh, you know, why would we tear down everything and erase any foundation that we have as a people?'"

The Harrison House is currently open for educational tours. To learn more about the rich culture and history of the home that hosted the stars, you can visit their website at harrisonhouselv.org.

Find more Black History Month features at ktnv.com/blackhistorymonth.