Sunday, March 21, 1999 | 9:23 a.m.
When Magnolia Ferrell came to Las Vegas from Lexington, Miss., in 1942 she quickly learned that there was little difference between her old hometown and her new one.
"Aunt Magnolia used to tell me about the vagrancy law where if an unemployed black person was caught walking on Las Vegas streets, the police could arrest him and put him to work on a chain gang," said Trish Geran, a native Las Vegan, black historian and award-winning documentary filmmaker.
"Many of her friends were arrested because they couldn't get jobs because no one was hiring blacks. The message was clear. They wanted blacks to leave town."
As Las Vegas prepares to observe the 39th anniversary of the desegregation of the Las Vegas Strip on Friday, Geran and other members of the black community say that while things have gotten a lot better since those days, there is still a long way to go for blacks to attain equality.
"There is still a need for desegregation, especially in the gaming industry," Geran said. Her documentary, "The Other Side of the Coin," featuring firsthand accounts of what Las Vegas was like prior to desegregation, won first place earlier this month at the San Diego International Black Film Festival.
"Yes, today you can find blacks working on the casino floors unlike in the 1950s. But go into the hotel-casino executive offices and count how many blacks you see working in key executive roles or even as secretaries. You won't find many."
Katherine Duncan-Briley, organizer of the 39th Anniversary of the Desegregation of Las Vegas Resorts celebration to be held at the New Town Tavern, said that while many would rather forget the painful past, it has to be remembered for the sake of her culture.
"The history has to be told and retold," she said. "For the 10-year-old black child living in Green Valley, what type of message does he get about black people when he comes to West Las Vegas and sees that it is rundown?
"We must reach him with the message of how this happened, and we must instill in him pride in our culture."
After desegregation began in Las Vegas in the early 1960s, the once-thriving area around Jackson Avenue began to decay. Those businesses lost the patronage of black residents who were free to frequent places that had previously been forbidden.
At Friday's celebration, Duncan-Briley will unveil plans that her organization, the African-American Cultural Society Inc., has for revitalizing Jackson Avenue and the surrounding black business community. They include storefront redesign and the construction of a black history museum.
However, many Las Vegas blacks are as concerned -- if not more -- about improving their lot in life as they are about sprucing up the community.
Earl McDonald, who came to Las Vegas in the early 1940s, remembers all too well how tough things were for blacks trying to make a living here.
"I came here as an electrician from Mississippi, but I couldn't get work here as an electrician," said McDonald, who in 1960 was the first black to get a Nevada contractor's license.
"For the longest time I couldn't get my contractor's license because I had to have a master electrician certificate. Every time I took that test, they'd tell me I failed it. They wouldn't tell me my score or what I got wrong. They'd just say I didn't pass."
Still, McDonald, now 72, was persistent in his efforts to find work in his field. In 1958, he was among the first blacks to get work at the Nevada Test Site.
"All I ever asked for was to get a job on my merits," said McDonald, longtime owner of Flash Electric in downtown Las Vegas. "I just wanted equal opportunity. I was bullheaded that way. I never took advantage of things like affirmative action. Looking back, I should have."
Nowhere has the battle for racial equality in Las Vegas been harder fought than in the entertainment industry, where for two decades black stars performed on the Strip, yet had to travel back and forth between West Las Vegas boarding houses and the resorts, which banned them from being guests.
"We came to the shows dressed (in costume) because there were no dressing rooms for blacks," said Claude Trenier, leader of the Treniers, a singing group that continues to perform in Las Vegas and Atlantic City after 50 years.
"Between acts we were told to go out and wait by the pool. But we couldn't go in the pool. Harry Belafonte once went swimming with his kids at the hotel where he worked, and the next day they shut down the pool, drained it and cleaned it."
Still, Trenier does not believe that the majority of white people who came to Las Vegas had any ill will toward blacks or were even aware of what was going on.
"The people loved us," he said. "Once the management gave us a table in the lounge and told us not to walk around (the casino). People came up and bought us drinks and talked to us. It made such a commotion that they asked us to leave the table and stuck us in the back room."
Toni Ono, an actress who made two movies in Las Vegas in the 1960s after blacks were allowed to stay as hotel guests, remembers being made to feel uncomfortable.
"My friends in the cast would point out people who were staring at me, but I told them, 'They aren't staring because I'm black. They're staring because I'm pretty,' " said Ono, who had the distinction of getting killed not once, but twice in the disaster film "The Towering Inferno."
"The rules may have changed, but it was a while before the public was ready to accept blacks" at casinos, she said.
As a resident of Las Vegas, Ono said she sees "subtle" prejudice here.
"We now have banks in West Las Vegas that for the longest time weren't there because the area was redlined," Ono said. "But ask black people who go to those banks how easy it is to get a loan from them.
"Ask blacks who live in West Las Vegas how easy it is to get auto insurance or why it is higher there than anywhere else in Las Vegas. Ask blacks on the Westside how easy it is to get a pizza delivered."
Longtime Sun columnist Joe Delaney, who is white, was an executive with Decca Records who brought entertainers here in the days before desegregation.
"You have to remember the industry was casino -- not hotel -- driven," said Delaney, who brought Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Ella Fitzgerald, among other black artists, to town. "A lot of the big business at that time was from Texas and Oklahoma oil men and cattlemen who did not want to see, as they put it, 'nigras' in the hotels.
"The only way things were going to change was if all the casinos agreed to desegregate. Otherwise, no one wanted to take a chance and risk losing a high-roller to another casino that would ban blacks."
Delaney, who in 1963 became a columnist for the Las Vegas Voice -- the town's black newspaper -- before joining the Sun in 1967, saw his share of horror stories.
He remembered two incidents that occurred when Ed Sullivan brought a show to Las Vegas in the 1950s. He attended a production meeting at a Strip resort that included young singer Della Reese. When a waitress came by and took orders, Reese asked for coffee and the waitress said she couldn't have it.
"So I ordered a cup of coffee and gave it to Della," Delaney said. "The next day, I got a call from a hotel official who said: 'Don't make trouble.' I knew exactly what he meant."
Later that same week, Delaney got Hampton and his wife, Gladys, tickets to see the Ed Sullivan Show.
A resort official escorted the Hamptons to their seats only after the house lights went down and told them to leave the show during the finale before the lights came up so that white audience members would not be offended by seeing blacks in the crowd.
That plan went out the window, however, when Sullivan spotted Hampton in the back row of the theater and introduced him to the audience. "They put a big spotlight on Lionel and his wife," Delaney said, noting that the crowd applauded the star musician.
Douglas Israel, a former black Las Vegas resident of the 1960s and a booking agent who today provides acts for West Las Vegas clubs, said segregation in one form or another continued long after desegregation was announced.
"It was semi-segregation," Israel said of lingering policies that started to change in the late '60s. For dining, for example, "There was a dealers' room and an employees' room. All of the dealers were white. And the other employees were mostly kitchen help, like dishwashers. There weren't many whites who washed dishes."
Duncan-Briley and other members of her organization credit the late Las Vegas Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun as being a catalyst in the Strip desegregation process.
It was Greenspun's plan that was accepted on March 26, 1960.
The plan was for Greenspun to secure promises from the larger Strip resorts that they would accept blacks as guests at their properties and to get assurances from Gov. Grant Sawyer, Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson and the county commissioners that a race-relations committee would be formed. In exchange, the NAACP agreed to call off a planned civil-rights march on the Strip.
Although the end to Strip segregation occurred before Geran was born, she feels it is vital to preserve the memory of the struggle for future generations.
Born in the old Las Vegas Hospital on 8th Street in 1961, Geran was greatly influenced by her Aunt Magnolia, who was the longtime head of housekeeping at the Thunderbird. Magnolia Ferrell encouraged Geran to pursue her dreams.
Geran attended Bishop Gorman High School, a Catholic institution that at the time had few black students.
"Kids in my neighborhood would say things like, 'What's the matter, are you too good to go to Las Vegas High?' " Geran said.
"Because of that I had few friends, so I spent a lot of time writing in my journal as a release."
She also developed an interest in the history of her community, and that resulted in Geran producing her half-hour documentary that examined Las Vegas through the eyes of its black residents.
Geran, at Aunt Magnolia's urging, completed her historical autobiography "The Dark Side of Las Vegas -- Beyond the Glimmering Lights," which is awaiting publication.
Aunt Magnolia died in December.
"I feel that I was given the baton," Geran said. "And I feel a great sense of obligation to pass on this rich untold history about how African-Americans are responsible for giving Las Vegas its distinct flavor today.
"And I plan to pass it to as many people and places as possible."