Embracing History: The stories in and of the F Street underpass

A view of the Westside Elementary School mural in the recently-opened F Street underpass at Interstate 15 Monday, Dec. 15, 2014. The underpass is decorated with 12 murals depicting scenes and people of significance to the West Las Vegas neighborhood and African-American history.
Photo: Steve Marcus

In a moment of pride and contrition, the City of Las Vegas celebrated the reversal of what had been seen as a glaring post-segregation-era slap in the face. With city officials and community leaders ceremoniously championing the newly completed F Street underpass on Friday, the sense of righting a wrong permeated. Mayor Carolyn Goodman: “The F Street reopening brings us back to where we should be.” Councilman Ricki Barlow: “You are all to be commended for standing up against city hall.”

F Street Underpass Murals

But in the $13.6 million controversial undoing of the controversial walling off (six years ago) of a historic black neighborhood came something unexpected: a public nod to Las Vegas history like none other in this town. When entering the underpass from either direction and beneath the stylized font of “Historic Westside,” there’s no mistaking that something big took place here. It’s not just the two 50-foot towers modeled after the Moulin Rouge, Las Vegas’ first hotel-casino to be racially integrated. Here, Lubertha Johnson is larger than life on the walls under the freeway, portrayed through the decades in a photomontage that captures four times over her smile and reassuring eyes.

She and the late civil rights attorney Charles Kellar share one of 12 murals. Others feature performers Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, Las Vegas movers and shakers such as Bob Bailey and Woodrow Wilson, and Westside establishments that made history.

Without Johnson, who worked at Henderson’s Carver Park housing project (home to black workers from the Basic Magnesium plant) before becoming one of the first two black nurses in Southern Nevada and president of the local chapter of the NAACP, the story of Las Vegas wouldn’t be complete. But it’s the presentation to the public through images and architecture, the outdoor museum of sorts, that stands as a monument to the more recent battle of F Street.

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