Las Vegas Sun

December 13, 2017

Currently: 69° — Complete forecast

Mississippi of the West’ in 1954 Magazine’s scathing article turned heads in Las Vegas

Between 1930 and 1960, blacks in Las Vegas were subjected to restrictions that rivaled the worst conditions in the deep South.

A story in the March 1954 edition of Ebony magazine titled "Negroes can't win in Las Vegas" told of the shocking segregation practices in the gambling capital.

"That article is important because it showed the world how bad things were here for African-Americans," black Las Vegas filmmaker and historian Trish Geran said.

Geran used that article as part of her research for her award-winning documentary, "The Other Side of the Coin."

The following are excerpts from the 45-year-old Ebony article by James Goodrich that led to Nevada being labeled "The Mississippi of the West" and sparked a Nevada attorney general's investigation into discrimination practices in Las Vegas:

"A Negro celebrity, concluding a stopover in Las Vegas recently, sized up the Nevada boom town this way: 'It's like some place in Mississippi -- downright prejudice and really rough on colored people. ...'

"Las Vegas, the fabulous gambling and resort spa ... is rigidly Jim Crow by custom. No other town outside of Dixie has more racial barriers. ...

"The Negro finds little welcome anywhere. He is barred from practically every place whites go for entertainment or services. He cannot live outside a segregated, slum-like community. He is relegated to the most menial jobs. For the Negro, Vegas is as bad as towns come. ... Negroes rate no better than second-class citizenship there. ...

"Anywhere along the Strip ... is considered off limits (to a black person) unless he has a job there or entertains at one of the clubs. In downtown Las Vegas, only two restaurants will serve them meals. ...

"Negroes cannot place a bet in any of the clubs. ... Whenever a Negro is spotted in a downtown gambling hall, it is safe to wager that he is behind a broom, mop or dish cloth. ...

"NAACP spokesman Woodrow Wilson: 'We Negroes in Las Vegas are not at all satisfied with conditions in our city. And we are doing all we can to bring about some change in them. We realize, though, that we are up against heavy odds in this fight and that it will take a long time to gain victory. But victory we are determined to win.' ...

"Gov. (Charles H.) Russell is an outspoken foe of racial prejudice and has pledged his support for an anti-discrimination bill for his state. 'I hate Jim Crow,' he says, 'and am sure it should be wiped out within the territory of Nevada.' ...

"An NAACP-sponsored civil-rights bill ... got referred to committee where it was pigeon-holed. It is believed by some ... that action on the bill was blocked by strong pressure from the anti-Negro gambling element in Las Vegas. ...

"Negroes themselves could be a great deal to blame for their lowly position in the town. ... The record shows that Negroes of Las Vegas have never been very active in civic matters. While representing as much as 10 percent of the town's population, they still exert no pressure on the city government. They are politically impotent because they have yet to show a concerned vote in elections. ...

"For years it has been whispered around the U.S. that Las Vegas is no good for Negroes, and, as a result, colored tourists have avoided the town. ... (Black Las Vegas leaders) have tried to convince local white business people that ... a big Negro market (from neighboring California) is going untapped. ...

"Las Vegas was not always Jim Crow, according to some Negro old-timers. They swear the town had a fair policy toward Negroes up to 1931, when the gambling crowd moved in with the legalization of gambling in Nevada. Many of the early gamblers ... were from the South and brought racial prejudice with them. ...

"Negroes of Las Vegas have more to worry about than the gamblers. Housing is their most immediate problem. They presently live 'across the tracks' in a segregated, unkept area covering about 10 square blocks on the city's west flank. Called Westside, the area is separated from white communities by a yard of railroad tracks and a pedestrian-auto underpass which Negroes jokingly refer to as the 'Iron Curtain.' ...

"Most of the houses on the Westside -- at least 70 percent -- are substandard, one-bedroom shacks without toilets or running water or both. Often as many as five persons, adults and children, dwell in one of the rooms. ...

"The second most pressing problem for Las Vegas Negroes is finding decent jobs. They presently get only menial work. ... Few Negroes, a survey discloses, have ever been hired as cooks, bartenders, waiters, dealers or bellhops at the plush hotels and gambling casinos. ..."

Six years after the Ebony article was published, the Strip began the process of desegregation, allowing blacks to become guests and utilize other resort services.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's tourist profile study for 1997, the latest year available, shows that 6 percent of all Las Vegas visitors are black Americans. The LVCVA has a sales representative whose job is to seek out minority organizations and businesses and convince them to bring their conventions and other events to Las Vegas.

archive