Carl Van Vechten
Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009 | midnight
It seems almost like a fairy tale in which a lone black woman—before the civil rights movement, before the integrated Rat Pack appeared on the Strip, even before the Voting Rights Act—stood against the powers that were in Vegas in 1952 and won.
Back then, Las Vegas was a city packed with powerful if unseen mobsters enforcing segregation in casinos to an extent that Ebony magazine in 1954 described Las Vegas as like “some place in Mississippi.” Enter Josephine Baker, the singer, dancer and entertainer who had already faced down Nazis years earlier. She had no fear of anyone in Las Vegas.
Even with their theories of racial purity and propensity for mass murder, the Nazis had left Baker alone when they controlled France, where she had become a citizen. But not content to be protected by her fame, Baker decided to work actively for the French Resistance. To this day Baker is the only American-born woman to be buried with a 21-gun salute from the French military.
In 1951 Baker returned to the United States for a tour with a purpose. According to Bennetta Jules-Rosette, who wrote Josephine Baker in Art and Life, Baker’s Las Vegas appearance at the Last Frontier in April 1952 was part of her “desegregation tour,” so called because of the artist’s insistence that a clause in her contract forbid segregated audiences. If honored, this clause would force the first desegregated shows to ever take place in a Vegas showroom.
“I can tell you all I know about Josephine Baker in 20 minutes,” says Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV. It takes her 10 minutes. In fact, Baker’s appearance was barely covered by the media—there was an ad for her show in the publication Fabulous Las Vegas, and an unsigned review in the same paper that noted, “Miss Baker is causing quite a stir in our vicinity.” Of two books I found that mention Baker’s Vegas debut, one has the casino wrong, and the other misstates the year. Still, most books on Vegas history don’t mention Baker’s visit at all.
But White says the story remained very vivid in the local black community, and she has transcribed oral accounts from two witnesses to what happened when Baker insisted to surprised hotel managers that her shows be desegregated, just like her contract demanded.
“We had a wonderful time,” said former county commissioner Woodrow Wilson (now deceased), who was interviewed in 1980. “That was just an unusual situation; because of her status in the entertainment world as an internationally famous woman, she was able to withstand the pressures coming from the hotel industry and the hotel that was involved and force them to live up to that agreement.”
As Wilson recalled, Baker reserved seats specifically for black guests to make sure the showroom lived up to the agreement. Despite her efforts, Wilson remembered the first night was not easy:
“The first evening the show was held up for an hour and a half, because she told them that she would not perform unless her guests were in the audience.”
In another oral history provided by White, Lubertha Johnson (also deceased) in 1987 remembered what happened the second night of Baker’s Vegas stand:
“The next night they told Miss Baker that they had followed their contract, because they had allowed blacks to come in one night.”
As Johnson told it, Baker’s response was to go to the black neighborhoods of West Las Vegas and recruit an audience for that night.
“I guess they just didn’t know how to handle it. Finally, they let us go in, but they wouldn’t serve us.
“Miss Baker went out on the stage, and she just sat up there. She said, ‘Now, I’m not going to entertain. You just stay where you are until something happens. I’m going to sit right there until they make up their minds ...’ The customers who were trying to get in were upset, because they were standing in line waiting. The others were sitting down waiting for her to come out to entertain. Finally, the management ... served us.”
Baker made sure that for her entire stand in Vegas the showroom had reserved tables, and the local NAACP made sure people came to sit at them. But then Baker left, and nothing changed.
Desegregation would not finally come to Las Vegas showrooms officially until 1960, on the eve of the reign of the integrated Rat Pack, and unofficially it took a few more years. But in 1952 Josephine Baker came to Vegas and made this town do it her way, and she won.