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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

African Americans in Las Vegas

Courtesy: Las Vegas News Bureau

From the 1950s to the early 1960s, in the midst of the economic boom that was occurring in America, Las Vegas experienced spectacular growth. Tourists supplied the city with some $200 million in profits every year. The number of resorts on the Strip was increasing rapidly, and the city proclaimed itself the "Entertainment Capital" of the country. However, outside of the neon glow of downtown Las Vegas, across the Fremont Street railroad tracks, lay the reality of racial segregation.

Looking for Jobs
African Americans made up a small portion of the Las Vegas population since the town's founding until the outbreak of World War II. When the Basic Magnesium, Inc. plant began operating in 1943, African Americans came to Las Vegas from around the country in search of employment. By 1944, Las Vegas was home to more than 3,000 African Americans, up from 178 just three years before. By 1955, with Las Vegas' resort industry and the number of associated jobs expanding exponentially, the city became home to more than 15,000 African Americans.

The Westside
These 15,000 African Americans, 10 percent of the city's general population, were forced to live in a segregated section of the city called the "Westside." The area, once J.T. McWilliams' original Las Vegas Townsite, lay behind a "cement curtain" barrier across the railroad tracks from Fremont Street. In the late 1950s, the conditions in the town hadn't changed much since McWilliams' time, and the ten square block area stood in stark contrast to the glamorous resorts of the Strip. The Westside had neither running water, nor working sewage lines, nor paved streets. For all that, it was its own town with its own churches and schools, a middle-class community where people took care of each other and lived well because of the wages paid on the Strip.

Limited Access
African Americans were not allowed to own or sell businesses or houses beyond the Westside. They worked in most of the "back-of-the-house" jobs in the casinos and downtown Las Vegas resorts, the jobs that kept Las Vegas running but that called for little-to-no contact with customers and guests. Still, in other parts of the U.S. even these jobs were denied to African Americans. But that was as much as Las Vegas allowed -- African Americans were not permitted to take part in many of the pleasures the town had to offer. Just like in most places in the U.S., resort casinos barred African Americans from gambling, attending shows and staying in their establishments.

Brilliant Black Entertainers
This policy created a dilemma for the resort owners. Many of the most sought-after acts for resort showrooms were African American. Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. were just four of the many hugely important entertainers of the time. However, due to the casino owners' policy, the entertainers would perform their acts, and then be ushered out the door, forced to stay in a far less accommodating room for a price that was often up to four times more expensive as the most sought after of Strip suites.

Leave through the Kitchen
As Sammy Davis Jr. once recalled, "In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off the stage, we were colored again...the other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage."

A Place of Their Own
In May 1955, the first integrated resort, the Moulin Rouge Hotel-Casino, opened on the southern border of the Westside of Las Vegas. At a construction price of $3.5 million, the resort, with partial ownership by boxer Joe Louis, was built to accommodate African Americans, who had been banned from the Strip resorts. In addition to being the first racially integrated hotel-casino, the Moulin Rouge afforded African Americans work in more visible, well-paying jobs, such as managing and dealing.

A Popular Third Act
In attempt to compete with the more visible Strip establishments, the Moulin Rouge added a third nightly show. Each night, when the headline entertainers on the Strip were finished, they would flock to the Moulin Rouge to continue their acts, bringing their audiences with them. In December 1955, the Moulin Rouge declared bankruptcy, but the successful integration of the hotel helped to ease the city into full-blown integration.

Segregation No More!
African American entertainers began asserting themselves and refusing to perform unless they were allowed to stay in the resorts and African Americans were allowed in the audience at their shows. In early 1960, President of the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP, Dr. James McMillan, gave Las Vegas authorities an ultimatum. McMillan threatened to stage a citywide protest unless the city desegregated within thirty days of his announcement.

The Moulin Rouge Agreement
Although, at first, the officials refused, they soon agreed to meet with McMillan, as they feared that the publicity generated by the story would harm Las Vegas' tourist industry. On March 25, 1960, the day before McMillan's scheduled protest, NAACP members met with Las Vegas' mayor and important businessmen. In a meeting mediated by editor Hank Greenspun, the group worked out an agreement that lifted all Jim Crow restrictions and desegregated the city. As a result of the agreement, which became known as the Moulin Rouge Agreement, African Americans were now allowed to gamble, to stay in Las Vegas resorts, and to attend shows.

The Beginnings of Desegration
While it would be more than ten years before African Americans could live beyond the borders of the Westside and the city was fully integrated, the agreement came years before countrywide desegregation. The swiftness with which the agreement was made was proof that the smooth operation of business was more important in Las Vegas than outside cultural forces.

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