Las Vegas Historic Westside Makes Plans For An African American Museum

Las Vegas Historic Westside Makes Plans For An African American Museum

December 8, 2022

Photo of the Historic Westside sign

Las Vegas Weekly
By Brock Radke

A Las Vegas City Council meeting approval on November 16 paved the way for what could be one of the most ambitious projects in the city’s recent history—an African-American museum and cultural center located in the Historic Westside neighborhood.

The council approved a contract with Gallagher & Associates—a Washington, D.C.-based design and development firm that has guided the creation of the International Spy Museum in D.C., the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, and the Mob Museum in Downtown Las Vegas, among many others—to develop a comprehensive master plan for the new museum at a location still to be determined. Joining the Gallagher team will be fundraising consulting firm Barber & Associates and FordMomentum, a company focusing on communications and community engagement.

The project is essentially an extension of the HUNDRED Plan (Historic Urban Neighborhood Design Redevelopment), the community-led revitalization mission for the Historic Westside, the historically Black West Las Vegas community once home to the Moulin Rouge, the first integrated hotel in the city. The HUNDRED Plan in Action is the implementation step of the process, on which community partners and the city have collaborated to bring the plan’s vision to life, and the museum project is considered a potential anchor cultural campus connecting various facilities in the Historic Westside.

“The first step was Legacy Park, established to honor the trailblazers that helped build this community,” Ward 5 City Councilman Cedric Crear says of the park that opened in December 2021. “It’s been wildly successful, how it’s been received, so then it’s about how do we add to that.”

Crear was born and raised in Las Vegas, and his father was the second Black doctor in Nevada. His personal history aligns with the story of the Historic Westside, and he grew up with those pioneers of the community, the names recognized at Legacy Park.

“There’s a famous picture of the Moulin Rouge agreement [in 1960] to desegregate the Las Vegas Strip, and it’s not just a picture,” he says. “There are people at that table that I knew. [Attorney] James Keller is in one picture, and he taught me how to swim. So it’s pretty cool to see where the community is going, knowing its rich history.”

The planning process for the museum began in December 2020 with a stakeholder and subject matter workshop, and a community survey, stakeholder interviews and open-to-the-public meetings took place in August and September 2021. Next steps for the development team include an analysis of the arts and culture environment, content strategy, operational and financial planning and fundraising strategy decisions.

At one September 2021 meeting, Barber & Associates president and principal consultant Anna Barber and Digizeum principal George Davis presented information about similar national and regional museum facilities, and Barber discussed the fundraising approach for the National Museum of African American History, which opened at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2016.

That venue cost approximately $700 million, Barber explained at the meeting, with $300 million coming from federal appropriations, “so it’s great to have Las Vegas supporting this particular initiative in the Historic Westside, because a lot of financial support and credibility can come from government support.”

At that same meeting, Davis, former executive director of the California African American Museum (CAAM), which moved to LA’s Exposition Park discussed the importance of defining the mission of such a museum. “The concern the founders had for CAAM was that people think of African American history and culture and they think of the South, or the Harlem Renaissance,” Davis said at the meeting. “They think of the West Coast as Hollywood and Las Vegas, and they don’t think that culture is part of the history of African Americans.”

Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries, has been at numerous community meetings about the HUNDRED Plan and revitalization efforts throughout the Historic Westside. If and when the museum development moves forward, she sees herself in an advisory role helping organizers and administrators understand the community’s unique history.

“We don’t know the history of Black communities in our country,” White says. “Every time you hear a story, people are surprised. They didn’t know that happened. It’s really important that the world begins to know this history, and having this museum in the community will help with that knowledge.”

Although an exact location for the museum has not been officially discussed, White and Crear agree that keeping it in the Historic Westside community was an essential decision. The Nashville museum dealt with controversy before its opening in January of 2021 at the site of the former convention center at Fifth and Broadway in downtown Nashville. It was originally slated for the historically Black Jefferson Street area.

“The community came back from those [meetings and workshops] with an overwhelming yes, that they want to see it here,” Crear says. “I’ve told everyone, museums are a heavy lift. We’re not making any promises. We’re just going to vet it as deeply as possible and see if we can make it happen.

“But it’s exciting to get this far, and we haven’t seen momentum in our community like this as far back as I’ve known,” he says, pointing to plans for a new library in the Historic Westside at Enterprise Park.

There’s no established timeline for when the master plan will be complete, but Crear says he expects comprehensive information to be collected and organized through 2023, and “to have something we can dig our heels into, a solid look and what it is going to be.”

Fundraising will be the foremost challenge, White says, but creating an experience with the capability to attract Las Vegas tourists along with locals to a location not frequently visited by either group could be the defining piece of the project mission.

“We have to make this a place where people from New York, Florida, California and every place else will want to see it and make it a part of their time in Las Vegas,” White says. “It has to be that dynamic, creative and innovative for people to want to add it as one of their stops. That’s an important part, because it’s making the Black community part of this tourist destination.”