Champion of Housing Equality
50 years after MLK assassination, housing equality fight continues
By: By Wade Tyler Millward
March 31, 2018
Catherine Nelson and her husband, Todd, spent two years on research before deciding on their first Las Vegas Valley home around 2015.
“You can’t kick yourself,” Nelson said. “There’s so much opportunity out there, and you don’t want to make a mistake.”
The story of upward mobility for the Nelsons — Catherine is a Las Vegas native of black and Chinese descent, and her husband is a Choctaw Native American from Indiana — reflects progress made not only in Las Vegas, but the nation, when it comes to shortening the home ownership gap for people of color.
But the fight for equality continues. Even 50 years after Washington, D.C., added legal protections against discrimination with the Fair Housing Act, a law enacted in the days after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., disparity still exists locally and beyond.
“Shacks” is how Cora Williams described her first homes after she moved to Las Vegas from Louisiana in the early 1950s.
It’s the word she used to describe houses on Monroe and Freeman avenues in a 1975 interview with UNLV as part of the university’s project documenting the black experience in Southern Nevada. The interview came fewer than 10 years after the death of King and birth of the Fair Housing Act.
Williams also described the houses as shacks to her youngest son, Howard Williams, now 53. Cora Williams died in September 2004 at age 73.
In the 1950s, parts of town were off-limits to black Las Vegans, Cora Williams told a UNLV interviewer. Inability to get a loan made building and improving property difficult for black locals.
“You couldn’t get a loan on any house in west Las Vegas,” Williams said. “All black people lived in west Las Vegas.”
No loans also made starting a business difficult. Cora Williams started out as a maid in the hotel industry when she moved to Las Vegas. After six months, she became a beautician and opened Sparks Studio Beauty Shop in west Las Vegas. She served on the state’s Cosmetology Board.
Without loans, people saved money from constructions jobs. They learned to rely on each other.
“They would rotate with each other,” Williams said. “You work on my place this Saturday; I’ll work on yours next Saturday.”
Cora Williams moved into a house on Van Buren Avenue around 1957. Today, son Howard Williams occupies the 912-square-foot house. He moved back in to take care of his mother when she first became sick around 2001.
The neighborhood has changed since he was a kid, Howard Williams said, adding that more police in the area has eased the crime rate. But with all the changes, his boyhood home that Cora Williams built has always been there for himself and his eight children and stepchildren, now in their 20s and 30s.