Las Vegas Sun

May 25, 2022

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Fighting racism

line By Ed Koch LAS VEGAS SUN


Here are some excerpts from the March 1954 edition of Ebony magazine's "Negroes can't win in Las Vegas" article by James Goodrich. The article resulted in Las Vegas being labeled "The Mississippi of the West:"

The early Years

Key events leading to desegregation of the major Las Vegas downtown and Strip hotels:

1905: Utah pioneer J.T. McWilliams establishes in January the 80-acre McWilliams Townsite that eventually becomes predominantly black West Las Vegas. It happens four months before the railroad auction creates the Clark Townsite that becomes downtown Las Vegas.

1922: The local chapter of the NAACP is founded by Clarence Ray.

1928: The Hoover Dam construction project begins. Estimates of blacks hired to work on the project range from 50 and 300.

1931: Gambling is legalized on March 19. As wealthy Southern gamblers begin frequenting the town, they pressure casino owners to keep blacks out.

1939: The city of Las Vegas passes an ordinance that limits black residents to West Las Vegas.

1941: The Basic Magnesium Plant is integrated. But Las Vegas NAACP President Arthur McCants, the son of an Alabama slave, condemns racist acts at the plant.

1946: Black entertainers including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Nat King Cole are major Strip headliners. However, because of segregation policies they cannot stay as guests in hotel rooms or frequent any of the facilities including the casino. Instead, black stars are shuffled to and from West Las Vegas boarding houses where they stay between performances.

1947: Singer Lena Horne tells Flamingo owner Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel that she either stays in the hotel as a guest or she won't perform there. She is allowed to stay but her linens that are changed daily purportedly are burned.

1953: Assemblyman George Rudiak, a Democrat from Las Vegas, introduces a civil rights bill that would outlaw ordinances restricting the rights of blacks. It fails.

1954: An article in Ebony magazine alleges that blacks in Las Vegas are treated as second-class citizens. As a result, Las Vegas is labeled the "Mississippi of the West."

1955: Sammy Davis Jr. is permitted to stay at the Sands after his friend and fellow Rat Packer Frank Sinatra insists Davis be exempt from the policy that prohibits blacks as guests. ... The Moulin Rouge, the city's first integrated casino, opens on Bonanza Road in West Las Vegas. It becomes a hot spot, attracting black and white Strip performers after their shows, but closes after six months.

1959: Interracial marriage is legalized in Nevada.

1960: The local chapter of the NAACP meets on March 25 and agrees not to go through with a planned peaceful civil rights march on the Strip after the larger hotels agree to end practices of segregation and allow blacks as guests.

Forty-five years ago today, white and black community leaders gathered in a "war room" at the Moulin Rouge to discuss a plan to try to do away with policies in Las Vegas that were fueling Nevada's negative reputation as "the Mississippi of the West."

The result of the historic NAACP meeting in 1960 was an accord brokered by late Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun that secured promises from the larger Strip resorts that they would accept blacks as guests at their properties.

In exchange, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People agreed to call off a planned peaceful civil rights march on the Strip that hotel owners at the time feared would turn violent, receive national TV news coverage and drive away tourists.

Although not every resort changed racist policies overnight, the accord was hailed as a major civil rights victory three years before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech and four years before the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.

And it was an about-face from the March 1954 Ebony magazine article "Negroes can't win in Las Vegas," which resulted in Las Vegas being labeled "The Mississippi of the West."

Award-winning Las Vegas filmmaker and black historian Trish Geran, who was born in Las Vegas a year after the accord was reached, chronicles the period between 1930 and 1960 in her book "The Dark Side of Las Vegas," scheduled for release in June.

In her book, Geran puts a big share of the blame for what happened to blacks not so much on an uncaring white community or the greed of white casino owners, but rather on complacency.

"The unity that had been built in the black community began to unravel in the 1950s as African-Americans got too complacent -- too comfortable -- with menial jobs that were better paying than jobs they had had in the South," Geran said. "We began settling for less.

"Blacks were parking their Cadillacs in front of their West Las Vegas shacks. The Ebony article was important because it opened the eyes of blacks in the South and elsewhere, who wrote to their relatives in West Las Vegas and shamed them by saying, 'Sure, you may be making good money, but you sold out.' "

The Ebony article said: "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."

Geran tells her story through the eyes of her aunt, Magnolia Ferrell, who moved from Lexington, Miss., to West Las Vegas in 1942, and worked as a maid in major resorts. After the Ebony magazine article was published, Ferrell joined the NAACP and was a secretary for the organization for many years.

"I felt that telling the story through what she experienced would give it more authenticity," Geran said of her aunt, who died in 1999.

"I also felt that people would see how she maintained her strength under such conditions and how she would take negative situations and find positives that would lead to effective change in her community."

While Geran places much importance on the Ebony magazine story -- she used it as a key component in her 1999 San Diego International Black Film Festival best documentary "The Other Side of the Coin" -- other local historians disagree on the level of the article's effectiveness and, to some extent, its accuracy.

UNLV history professor Gene Moehring and Community College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green, in their soon-to-be-released book "Las Vegas: A Centennial History," argue that Las Vegas was not the Mississippi of the West.

"I certainly would agree with her (Geran) that the Ebony article had more impact on the black community because most white people did not read Ebony or ever saw that article," said Moehring, author of the 1989 book "Resort City in the Sunbelt," which covers the early history of Las Vegas.

"But the Ebony article did not start the civil rights movement here. It was already happening. Our argument is that there were Western cities that had much worse prejudice. In Los Angeles, cops were far more brutal to blacks. And Phoenix had even more restrictive laws regarding blacks than Las Vegas."

Moehring said that while Las Vegas resorts offered blacks just low-level maid, porter and cook jobs, resorts in other cities offered no jobs to blacks. He said hotels in liberal San Francisco refused to hire blacks until the mid-1960s and only after demonstrations brought an end to that form of discrimination.

Green, to some extent, agrees that the Ebony article "was a catalyst for civil rights here -- but there were other catalysts," including the integration of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson, the desegregation of the armed forces, the Brown (equal education) decision and the Montgomery bus boycott.

"One local factor in the civil rights movement here was growth," Green said.

"The presence of a larger African-American community helped attract more professionals -- Dr. Charles West and Dr. James McMillan, for example. African-Americans here certainly were unhappy with their fate, but the question was what to do about it and how to do it."

Green said, also at that time, whites who believed in civil rights were gaining power.

"Gov. Grant Sawyer was elected in 1958, Mayor Oran Gragson was elected in 1959 and Hank Greenspun had established the Sun as a local force with which to be reckoned," he said.

"Many people who had either voted for Sawyer and Gragson or read Greenspun's columns included recent arrivals who were shocked at the conditions they saw local African-Americans were dealing with."

UNLV history professor Hal Rothman said the Ebony article had "many inaccuracies," including ignoring that there were black doctors and strong black leaders at that time.

Still, he agrees with Geran that blacks, satisfied with menial jobs on the Strip, in downtown and in black-owned West Las Vegas businesses that flourished along Jackson Street, had struck "a devil's bargain" to accept poor living conditions in exchange for what they considered good paying work.

"Blacks in West Las Vegas owned their homes and had jobs or owned businesses," Rothman said. "They had something to lose by becoming activists."

Former longtime state Sen. Joe Neal, a black man who worked as a porter at hotels in the days before desegregation, said the black community had to grow before it could become effective politically.

"I agree with her (Geran's) assessment that during a particular period in the late 40s and early 1950s there were a lot of blacks coming here from the South, but their top concern was getting jobs, not protesting," said Neal, who served in the Legislature from 1972 until his retirement in 2004.

"You can't have an effective protest until you get roots and get settled. Once they got settled, blacks were able to do something."

Neal said when the Ebony article came out it captured the spirit of what life was like for many local blacks, including using the term "Iron Curtain" to describe the railroad tracks that divided Las Vegas and West Las Vegas.

The historic NAACP meeting on March 25, 1960, came about after then-NAACP President James McMillan went on a local radio station and announced a peaceful civil rights march by 300 blacks on the Strip was planned for March 26.

Fearing violence would arise, an alternative was sought. Moehring said the role of white leaders in hammering out the accord cannot be underplayed.

"Greenspun and Gragson used the threat of the march as a vehicle to bring both sides together," he said. "It was liberals against the white establishment.

"Greenspun was very important because blacks trusted him. They saw how he had stood up to (U.S. Sen.) Pat McCarran (who orchestrated an advertisers boycott to kill the Sun after the paper criticized McCarran's policies) and he wielded the kind of influence that would get the hotels to accept change."

Attending the March 25 meeting were black leaders Lubertha Warden, Bob Bailey, David Hoggard, the Rev. Donald Clark, McMillan and West. They were joined by Sheriff Butch Leypoldt, Las Vegas Police Chief R. K. Sheffer, Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson, County Commissioners Clesse Turner and Art Olsen and Greenspun.

At 6 p.m., the accord was reached, as the Desert Inn, Stardust and Tropicana hotels accepted the terms and immediately ended segregation policies.

In his March 26, 1960, "Where I Stand" column under the huge banner headline announcing the breaking of the color barrier in Las Vegas, Greenspun wrote:

"All I can do is tell them (readers) about the unfairness, the bigotry, the sickening ... sense of superiority that small people assume -- the narrow closed minds that education cannot reach. And, perhaps in some small measure help relieve the choking feeling of frustration (for blacks)."

Geran, a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School, noted that it took some resorts months to accept the accord. Some hotel owners never signed on, but eventually they ceased discriminatory practices.

In many other segments of the community and Las Vegas society, changes did not come overnight as a result of hotel desegregation.

"Change was slow, and things are still changing," said Neal who entered politics in 1964 when he ran for an NAACP post. "The work they (civil rights leaders of the late 1950s and early 1960s) did was necessary. The impact was not as great as some say it should have been, but it was a needed first step.

"Today, we have blacks in decision-making positions in the Legislature, in city and county government and in gaming and in gaming regulation."

Rothman said, for residents of the Las Vegas Valley, race is less of a factor today than it was in the three decades following hotel desegregation.

"No longer is the bulk of the black population in West Las Vegas," he said. "Most blacks today live spread out in integrated neighborhoods throughout Southern Nevada."

That, Geran says, is why local civil rights leaders in 1960 took up the fight to desegregate the hotels, hoping other barriers eventually would fall.

"As Aunt Magnolia used to tell me, 'You make your own heaven on earth,' " Geran said."

Trish Geran,