Take a Walk on the Westside

The places and buildings in the Historic Westside neighborhood aren’t just pieces of Las Vegas history. For longtime residents like Chase McCurdy, it’s part of his family’s legacy in the community.

“My grandfather was the first one to move to Las Vegas in 1939,” he says.

While he knows the story of the Westside—the community that was built as a result of racial segregation—McCurdy says it’s always important to dive deeper and become more knowledgeable. That’s why he came out to tour the Historic Westside School.

“It’s great to see history more openly discussed,” he adds. “Any opportunity to learn about our history, especially the harder aspects, is important.”

Krystal Ramirez

For Black History Month, the Nevada Preservation Foundation kicked off its first guided walking tour, starting with the Historic Westside School. The nonprofit, which was founded in 2013 and works to educate and preserve aspects of Nevada’s past, is hosting a series of events to talk about Las Vegas’ African American heritage. The tour is also part of a larger effort to better connect people with history in general.

“A lot of people know some of the history, but they don’t know the history of a lot of different places in town,” says Heidi Swank, the organization’s executive director. “Having a tour where somebody can either download something off a website to do on their own or have a guided tour gets people out interacting with the building and learning those stories.”

Prior to the inaugural event, the foundation would host a series of guided tours once a year during its Home and History event in April. The group has been working to put on more regular guided tours, a feature of similar nonprofits in other cities. “We are excited to be able to get big enough to do this,” Swank adds.

The Historic Westside School tour is scheduled to take place at 4 p.m. the second Thursday of every month. The half-hour tour goes over the history of the oldest remaining schoolhouse in Las Vegas, including why it was built and the additions it has made since.

When it was built in 1923 as Branch No. 1 Grammar School, the students were primarily Paiute, Hispanic and low-income white children in the area.

“This was something I was surprised to hear about,” McCurdy says. “I knew about the growth of the Westside, but never about the timeline prior.”

Once Las Vegas saw a boom of African Americans in the early 1940s, black workers and their families were segregated to the area.

“Starting in the 1930s, the Las Vegas mayor’s administration openly promoted racist policies,” Swank says. “They didn’t allow African American business owners to renew their business licenses unless they relocated to the Westside, and they forcibly removed African American families into the Westside.”

This was all legal because of Jim Crow laws.

By the 1940s, the school served mostly African American students. Over the years, Swank says the school wasn’t just for learning but also became a community center where area residents gathered.

Segregation in Las Vegas finally began to subside in the late 1960s, and residents of the area began to migrate to other parts of the city.

The school closed by 1974 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. “But state and federal registers are just honorary,” Swank says. “They don’t put in protections on the buildings. Local registers, like the Las Vegas one, puts protections on it.”

By 2010, it became listed on the local register. Thanks to the City of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission, the school went through a $12.5 million restoration. The city was able to bring back aspects of the schoolhouse, including its original mint green color, though parts of the interior, such as the light fixtures, are replicas.

During February, the foundation is doing tours to talk about other aspects of the Historic Westside, such as Berkley Square, one of the well-known residential communities.

“I was surprised that we have a large number of folks that just don’t know the history of the Westside,” Swank says. “This is one way to bring that to them.”

McCurdy says he hopes to join in other tours.

“I like any opportunity I can engage with our history,” he says. “I hope people do the same.”