recognizes the pioneering efforts of Blacks who lived here, worked and
contributed to Las Vegas, despite the many closed doors that Blacks
were not, at that time, allowed to enter through. Their stories are a
great part of Nevadan and American history, which should be remembered
in February and every day.
There are many active, living legends, and there are unsung heroes of Las Vegas Black history; many notables have passed on after making an indelible mark on local history, so we honor them all. Each of them deserves to be named alongside his or her accomplishments in the history books. Though it is not possible to provide a complete list, the Las Vegas Tribune, the series sponsors and contributors are highlighting
several pioneering Blacks for their part in making the city a better place to live, learn and earn.
More Las Vegas Black “firsts” are highlighted in photographs, and the spotlight is on some of the citizen historians who are keeping the stories alive and expanding the records with more names and details
about Black accomplishments made under harsh and slowly improving
organizations, educators and civic groups in the valley are taking
responsibility for collecting and recording information on Black
Ideally, all pioneers and history-makers would be accounted for and
lauded, but therein lies the challenge: historical records of Blacks’
achievements over the years have often been flawed, misstated, omitted
or incomplete, with much of it yet to be compiled or documented
properly. That, fortunately, is rapidly changing through the
collective efforts of Blacks and others in the local community and
Many men, women and young students are coming together in
history-oriented, nonprofit groups. From developing museum collections
to informal, presentations, several Las Vegas women are keeping
history real and fun for upcoming generations, for the future and for
A more accurate and complete history is evolving via a variety of
methods: gathering and copying original photographs, oral histories,
meetings and public presentations involving elder pioneers, school
study programs, college and universities’ Black history collections,
and by other means.
Word of mouth is no small part of the process either, for without it,
many lesser-known yet significant achievements would remain in
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Reno, hire expert archivists
with a department full of resources to build collections that are
invaluable in terms of recording Black history. But there are
individual historians who, despite having minimal resources, funds and
critical necessities, still work hard to collect and protect
meaningful, major historical facts and artifacts.
Erma J. Walker, a longtime Las Vegan, contributes to keeping Black
history alive all year in her own way, and she demonstrates her
passion about her endeavors.
Some historians travel to teach, and that is what she aims to do. For
example, at the Obama Ball 2009 celebration in Las Vegas that was held
at the Union Plaza, Walker stayed outside the festive bash in the
banquet room because her “80-Plus Pioneers and Black Firsts” history
display was on a table near the room’s entrance. The exhibit paid
tribute to the historic presidency, but it also welcomed visitors to
learn more about locals’ historic Black achievements.
She said the mobile exhibit was in the starting stages and would be
enhanced as time goes on. Her display consists of more than six boards
with pictures of notable “Black firsts,” and other presentation boards
display 80-year-old and older residents who have experience-rich life
stories to share. Two of her featured “80-plus pioneers,” Harold and
Opal Wilson, were married for over 68 years.
She said the inspiration to get more active in learning about and
teaching Black local history is primarily because of the problems
youth face with low self-esteem and too little understanding of their
“I’ve had this ‘Black Firsts’ book [by Jessie Carney Smith, about
Blacks in the U.S.] for about five years, and I’ve thought about
getting these types of books into the school system. But when we came
upon [President Obama’s] inauguration time, I decided to put this
Black history exhibit together,” she continued.
“If our young people see all the contributions that their ancestors
made to this country, they would be more proud and would look forward
to bettering themselves. They would have something to look forward to.
Maybe they would not join so many gangs doing violence, and so forth,”
“A lot of people came up to me when I was at the event [Obama Ball],
and they wondered why certain people weren’t included. I let them know
I had only been working on it for a short time, and I let them know
that if they want to contribute pictures or anything, they can get
things to me.” Email Erma Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org and type
“Black Firsts” in the subject line.
Erma Walker is also an active member of the Las Vegas Black Historical
Society Inc. The group was chartered in 1998, and its mission is to
compile oral histories, images and artifacts; also to record data so
that eventually a public facility can house their collections.
Gwen Brown, Sarann Knight Preddy, Katherine Joseph and Alice Key were
the founding members, who were soon joined by many charter members,
and the organization openly invited general members. The LVBHSI holds
public events regularly as fundraisers, and the objective is to
educate the public about historic and ongoing Black achievements.
Gift of History
Longtime locals Gwen Walker, director and founder, and her mother,
Juanita Walker, co-founder, established a museum, and they have
amassed an invaluable collection of memorabilia. Their collections
tell countless stories of local Nevadans and others.
The Walker family (not related to Erma Walker) is credited for
establishing Nevada’s only African-American museum. The museum started
as a gift shop, Nika’s Gifts, in a converted house where visitors
could purchase beautiful ethnic dolls, fabric items, African-American
themed collectibles and more.
Visitors can now view archives of personal photographs, writings,
objects, artwork, crafts and other representations of Black life and
culture over the early years as experienced by Las Vegans and others
in the broader African-American community.
Gwen Walker spoke about the challenges of archiving and compiling
historical records as a non-profit organization. She says that
original documents and the sheer volume of papers and other items
create a constant need for more display space and storage. For
example, she says there is an incredible need for three-ring binders
of all types and sheet protectors, as she said, “to no end.”
She added, “We have shelves and shelves of books and binders,” and she
described some of the kinds of collections contained in them:
political memorabilia, church and faith-based groups’ photos and
records, along with images of early Las Vegas depicting the
segregation of the McWilliams Township and outward growth of the
Historic West Las Vegas community.
“We have photos on every piece of wall space and in every room,” she added.
The Walker Museum of African-American History is located in the heart
of the Historic West Las Vegas community, just five minutes from
In addition to historians with hands-on exhibits, more and more books
uncovering Black history are becoming readily available in libraries
and stores, as well as on websites. A new generation of local
publications of all types — online and print — is bringing the past
forward and doing an outstanding job, ensuring that current news,
community events and Black achievers are recorded as the
history-makers of the future.
Local newspapers continue to include relevant stories on current
events bound to be historically significant. It’s all about keeping
history for the future.
Several publishers were recognized in Part 1 of this Black History
series. Libraries, online directories and other resources will have
guides with the names of magazines, organizations, websites and other
helpful materials for those who want to learn more about the
fascinating history of Black migration to Las Vegas, the ongoing
experiences and myriad contributions of Black Americans to the
ethnically rich, social fabric of Southern Nevada.
The first installment of this series illustrated that early Black
settlers to the valley endured hardships imposed upon them due to
bigotry and discriminatory laws. Blacks overall were denied access,
were regularly disadvantaged and were not allowed to take advantage of
simple human dignities, such as an overnight stay in a Strip hotel
room — a right denied to the hotel-casino’s own top marquee,
big-moneymaking names, such as Sammy Davis Jr. and many others, as
recently as 1960.
Since that time, Blacks have won hard-fought battles, and the mindset
of Las Vegans has progressively changed, greatly shunning the severe
racism of yesteryear. But it is chiefly through keeping the lessons of
history alive that our city, as well as our nation, has come to gain
interracial understanding to reduce the likelihood of repeating the
uglier parts of history in America. And that’s good for residents,
families and youth, as well as for the millions of racially and
culturally diverse visitors to Southern Nevada.
* * * * *
Parker Philpot is a Southern Nevada-based journalist, commentator and
writes “From Parker’s Pen,” an online column and can be contacted at