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"A Brief Look of the Development of the Black Community of Las Vegas": manuscript draft by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1970 (year approximate) to 1996 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Unpublished manuscripts file.

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man000944. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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’It's so hot and dry in the summer that it makes your spit powdered; and it’s so cold in the winter that you have to put a blanket on the stove to keep the fire warm." This is how the Great Basin might have been described five thous-nd years ago. There has been little cause to alter that description. A dry, arid, hell hole not suitable for human habitation. It was not always that way. Once water covered thousands of square miles and J both animal and plant life was plentiful. When dislocation of Lake Lahon- tan occurred drastic changes took place with the ecology. Some life forms disappeared entirely. Others accomodated and adapted themselves to the changes.
Newcomer was an unknown word almost. Other than Indian groups who were permanent residents there were only an occasional trapper. Most of this activity was in the northern portion. Those traveling from New Mexico to southern California followed a trail originating at Santa Fe and then on to Littlefield, Arizona following the Virgin River south and continuing with the Colorado to the Mohave Villages and then west across the Garces Trail to Los Angeles. Las Vegas was missed entirely on this right angled route. The hypotenuse of the Old Spanish Trail cut the trip in half. The springs at Las Vegas and the shade of the mesquite trees caused the area to become a favored stopping point between Salt Lake and California.
No permanent dwellings were constructed. In spite of traffic it remained a good place only to visit, but you wouldn * t want to live there. It remained so even after the arrival of John C. Fremont who first visited the Meadows in 1844. The trail became more and more popular and was used extensively by homesteaders, prospectors seeking to get to the gold fields of California via the southern route, and even the mail service began to
use this route. As late as 1854 there was no report of a settlement at
Las Vegas. The following spring at the General Conference of the Mormon Church at Salt Lake City, President Brigham Young announced his intention of establishing a colony in the heart of the arid wasteland between Cedar City, Utah and San Bernardino, California. The settlement was to be yet another link of the line of settlements of the Mormon Corridor. ’ William Bring- hurst and thirty others were to build a fort, protect immigrants and the mail, teach the local natives to farm and to spread Mormonism among them. ' I
They arrived at the site on June 14, 1855. These colonists experienced a great deal of hardship. Not only was the soil and climate unfriendly, but there were also disagreements within the groups These ultimately led to Bringhurst being disfellowshipped from the Church. Because they were unable to overcome their obstacles sufficiently they were finally granted their liberty to abandon Las Vegas. After just twenty months they pulled up
stakes and returned to their homes.
Once again Las Vegas was merely a dot on the map. For the next fifty years the only real activity was that occurring at a few ranches. The entire state had been side-stepped in the normal westward migration due to the discovery of gold in California. Backtracking had begun to take place on the part of those early forty-niners who had either been unsuccessful in their quest for wealth in the California gold fields or who, after their claims had petered out, decided to move on to other fields. Some of them followed the ravines and canyons in search of the sources of gold which had been panned in the valleys. Up the west slopes of the Sierra Nevadas and on eastward to the silver bonanzas of the Comstock. The mineral wealth found in northern Nevada prompted the Federal Government to admit Nevada as a state in 1864 even though it had not the proscribed population necessary to statehood. There were less than 34,000 people in the state at that time. Even
though new boom towns appeared they were usually populated by the transient miners for the most part. The population of Nevada for the forty years between 1860 and 1900 gives mute testimony as to the desirability of it as a place for permanent residency. In 1860 there were merely 6857 people in Nevada. The gold fever which started at Six Mile Canyon in late 1859 continued to attract more prospectors. Over 10,000 people came to Silver City, Gold Hill and Virginia City during the next two years. The activity was heightened by strikes at the Esmeralda Mines and at Aurora, Austin, Mill City and Dixie (later changed to Unionville because of the Civil War). By 1870 the population had swelled to 42,491. 1880 saw the population at its
highest for the nineteenth century with 62, 266. Mining activity almost ceased for the next 20 years because.the price of silver had dropped so drastically. Gold strikes in the Yukon, Africa and Australia attracted many of the miners to those places. As a result, the population fell to 47,355 in 1890 and by the turn of the century it was down to 42, 335. It is obvious that one of the major reasons which most people had for coming to Nevada had to do with their more than 50-50 chance of.’’hitting it big". Once the attraction was gone, so too were the miners. Nevada’s problems started in 1873 with the Coinage Act which demonetized silver and made gold the sole monetary standard. The Bland-Allison Act of 1878,which provided for the free and unlimited coinage of silver, rekindled interest in Nevada. The Act required the Secretary of the Treasury to make silver purchases, on a monthly basis, of not less than two million dollars nor more than four million at the current market price. By mid-1890 the market price of silver was greatly depressed in relationship to the value of gold. A twenty-to-one ratio existed. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 gave silverites some
advantage. While it halted the free coinage of silver it did provide for
the purchase of 4,500,000 oz. of silver each month. This Act increased the circulation of redeemable paper currency, but it also weakened the gold reserve. A bimetal standard of redemption did not occur. Three and a half years later the Act was repealed in 1893 because of the drain it had caused on the gold reserve. The battle between gold and silver waged on into the presidential campaign of 1896,where William Jennings Bryan answered the call of silverites in a manner best characterized by his eloquent "Cross of Gold" speech in which he emotionally charged that the gold backers would not be I permitted to "...crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." ' All of this was to no avail. March 14, 1900 found the passage of the Currency Act which made gold the monetary standard of the United States. The population of Nevada during these critical years flip-flopped as did the fortunes of silver. The uncertainty of the future of the mining interest of Nevada greatly inhibited the desires of many to come to the "Silver State". All of this activity had been centered in north-central Nevada. The southern part of the state had remained isolated. No roads led to Las Vegas. Only the Old Spanish Trail, whose value had diminished with the construction of the Western and Southern Pacific Railroad, went through the area.
It was the coming of the railroad which brought about the resurrection of Las Vegas. Even this had to do with the discovery of mineral wealth in Nye County which is immediatedly to the north of Clark County which is the . site of Las Vegas. The Tonopah-Goldfield discoveries of 1900 pushed the line of settlement further southward. 1905 brought the railroad to the Las Vegas Townsite as surveyed by Senator Clark.* Las Vegas just happened to be "in the way" of the route of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. Because of the hot springs located near the Culverwell Ranch near the Nevada- Utah border in the Meadow Valley Wash it was decided that the town would be called Caliente. The question as to where the next stop would be arose. Because of the springs and the availability of wood from the nearby mountains, Las Vegas was decided upon.
At a time when there were but few people living in the Las Vegas area, J.T. McWilliams, an engineer, arrived to survey the area. Part of his responsibility was to define the area of the Stewart Ranch. Upon completion of that task and because he realized that the railroad would soon be coming through the area, he decided to deal himself in on the ground floor.
With all of his engineering expertise at work he began to search for a place which would be most suitable for the new town. He located such an area and named it for himself—McWilliams Townsite.
At a time when nothing was here and when one could have the pick of most of the land in the area, McWilliams made his choice. The area was suitable for a number of reasons. It was directly in the path of the proposed railroad which would automatically increase its value, (according to his calculations, the railroad would cut through the heart of his township) the soil was among the best in the area, it was in close proximity to the wash which carried the run off waters of the springs, there was a high level of ground water and it commanded a spectacular view of most of the surrounding area due to its elevation.
The railroad interests had different ideas. They wanted their own town. Subsequently, they by-passed the McWilliams tract and decided upon an area which was not too far removed from it. Their engineers and surveyors plotted the Clark Townsite. It would be at that site where Las Vegas would be resurrected.
The McWilliams Townsite was left to its own devices. Because the railroad had decided on an alternate site, the preliminary surveying which had been done at McWilliams was all for naught. The streets had been laid out and several structures had been erected. No additional improvements could be made without additional funding—such was not forthcoming. Slowly, the area fell into disrepair. It became known as "Ragtown" because only those who could not afford to live in Clark Townsite lived there. None of those early residents,
however, were Black.
Clark Townsite, as Las Vegas was called, conducted a land auction in 1905. A roundhouse, an ice house and a railroad yard helped comprise the tent city. With the presence of the trees and the springs, there was not much more to be said about what could be found in Las Vegas in 1905. The boldness of the ceremony of beginning the town was superced3d only by the audacity of its early founders. It was predicted that that little piece of flypaper in the middle of the desert would one day be a thriving metropolis.
Trainloads of land speculators were brought in from Salt Lake and Los Angeles on the recently completed railroad. Lots were selling for from $100 to $300 depending on their proximity to the ice house. Ice was brought down from the mountains and cold beer, even though sometimes green, was in great abundance. A carnival atmosphere was in evidence. There were more buyers than there were lots to be sold. In two days time $345,000 in lots had been sold. Between construction work, railroad work, hotels and saloons in the "Red Light" district of Block 16, could be found most of the workers in Las Vegas.
There had been Blacks among the crew which brought the railroad to Las Vegas. Some proceeded on with the line as it went south. A few, however, remained here as part of the permanent maintainence crew. The number of Blacks in Las Vegas remained small for the first quarter-century of the existence of the town..
As early as the mid 1870s there were Black living in the valley. At a time when there were but two active ranches here, one was partially owned by John Howell, a black man. Also living at that ranch was his brother William. William fathered several children through his association with the Paiutes. Their presence added to the total number of Blacks living in the Las Vegas area.
There were racial animosities to be found. Blacks and other foreigners had been restricted to living only on Block 17 which was adjacent to Block 16, which housed the Red Light district. Only whites were permitted membership in the
local trade unions and prayers for the day when Paiutes would be known only
in the wild west story books abounded. People who were considered foreigners were not permitted to stay overnight unless they held a job and jobs were not all that plentiful. There was a strong sagabond law which apparently did not apply to whites, and there were very strong negative Austrian, Greek and Italian sentiments since they were usually defined as making a nuisance of themselves by drinking and singing too loudly in residential areas as they went to and from from the saloons to their cardboard shacks and tents along the railroad tracks.
A dusty little town 300 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 30 miles from the raging Colorado. The largest river in the southwest brought life to one of the most arid regions in the world. It simultaneously brought a yearly springtime devastation. This was costly because of the loss of lives, livestock and crops. Something had to be done. As early as 1914,when Arthur Davis became director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, serious consideration had been given to taming the river by constructing a dam. Damming the river was not merely a matter of erecting a structure across its path; there were other serious considerations which had to be addressed. One of these had to do with how a dam would aid those states of the Colorado River watershed. There had always been disputes over the rights to draw water from the river. A tentative solution had been reached with the Colorado River Compact of 1922. This Compact defined the distribution between the upper basin and the lower basin states. It involved Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada. Lee Ferry, Arizona separated the upper basin from the lower basin. Another consideration was that pertaining to navigational rights on the river. A third was the effect which a dam would have on domestic, agricultural and power interests. The latter took precedence. Before any real efforts could be made toward final realization World War I erupted. Everything took a back seat to the war effort.
Both man power and production was directed toward bringing the war to a successful end. Nevada's population at that time was less than 85,000,and Las Vegas accounted for approximately 10% of that figure.
At wars end things returned to normal as far as Las Vegas was concerned— tamed. As was the case in other parts of the country, Nevada enjoyed its era of prosperity. Movie theaters, swimming pools, tea clubs and, of course, speakeasies appeared,on the scene. By 1920 there were only 246 blacks in the entire state and only 60 of these were in Las Vegas. There was, however, some I
KKK activity in the state. These activities took place in both Washo and Clark counties. Blacks, who were kept out of the unions and thereby the
work force, had to do whatever they could to earn a living. Some worked as rum runners , and this involvement was all which was necessary for the Klan to see blacks as a threat to the moral fiber of the community. Little attention was paid to those for whom blacks ran rum. White men were busy working in the building trades. A new high school was being erected, a new courthouse, streets were being paved and there were other civic improvements in progress which offered the white worker an abundance of employment opportunities. Wages were low and,for all intents and purposes,there was no reason to believe that they would be higher. A dollar was worth a dollar- but they were few and far between. Die distance between dollars grew with the coming of the Great Depression of 1929.
There was salvation for Las Vegas on the horizon. The approval of the Boulder Canyon Project Act and its subsequent amendments made possible the construction of the Boulder Dam. By the time the initial plans had been finalized most people in the United States were unemployed. When word of this great project hit the news job hunters from around the country began to flock to Las Vegas. w Almost overnight the population tripled. There were no
accomodations available for these newcomers. They slept in gulleys, washes,
in cardboard shacks and lean-to’s. ■ All were hopeful that they would be among those to secure employnent. Preference was given to Veterans and racial minorities were ignored. The contract stated that none of the Mon- golian race would be hired and those few blacks who eventually were employed had to fight for almost two years before the first were hired. The local newspapers saw, even before the actual work was begun, that the Ham ^ould change the face of Las Vegas. Not only was there work to be had at the dam proper,but there were also other supportive jobs which about
which affected, not only Las Vegas but the remainder of the nation as well. Plants and factories around the country began the monumental task of manu- facturing all of the machinery and equipment needed for the project. (pipes cement, tubing, wiring, turbines, nuts, bolts, jackhammers and such).
Also a railway spur had to be built to bring heavy equipment to the Ham site along with a roadway constructed from Las Vegas to the dam. Power lines had to be brought up from southern California. The All-American Canal to the Imperial Valley was constructed and Boulder City, Nevada was built to house the workers. The dam was more than a dam. It was the salve which soothed the unemployment malaise of the nation and help put it back on its feet again. Other reclamation projects were subsequently built,but it was the project at Black Canyon which turned the tide toward recovery.
The project has been heralded as the eighth wonder of the world. Never had anything of such proportions been attempted. The news of the project caused those who could afford the trip to come and see it for themselves. Even before its completion tourists began to arrive. Hotels were built to accomodate them. Prohibition had been repealed in 1933 and gambling had been formally legalized in 1931. By 1934 the number of visitors to Las Vegas ranged between 250,000 and 365,000. The arrival of these tourists brought about hundreds of new jobs. The appearance of Fremont Street began
to change. A new kind of licensing procedure was initiated. Where the
"action" had originally been restricted to Block 16 the town now found itself in need for room to expand. Prior to 1930 there had been few hotels in Las Vegas. The Overland and the Hotel Nevada were the lar.gest. The Oasis was the most popular eating place. The "Great White Way" of Fremont Street was born during the late 1930' s and it was white in more ways than its lights. The Meadow's, The Boulder Club, The Apache, The Sal Sagev, the White Spot Cafe, and the Pioneer Club all opened along Fremont Street. Those who came to view the Dam on the Colorado came to Las Vegas. The building boom went on until America’s entry into World War II when there were restrictions on travel due to gasoline rationing. Vegans knew that the war would not last forever and this time they began to prepare for the future. A sense of optimism which had been present *at the second beginning of Las Vegas in 1905 carried on into and through the war. Because of the presence of the abundance of power in southern Nevada there were military installations begun in Clark County. Basic Magnesium Corporation was established in the new town of Henderson, Nevada for the same reason. More and more the future of Las Vegas and Clark County was positively affected because of the presence of the Boulder Dam. In 1941 the El Rancho Hotel officially opened the Strip. This was soon followed by such places as the Last Frontier, the Sahara, The Desert Inn and others. New hotels, new jobs, new services all helped to bring about a population explosion in southern Nevada. All of this was a result of the Colorado River. Had it not been 30 miles from Las Vegas, had the walls of Black Canyon not been where they were, had the canyon not been in proximity to the separation of the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, had not its yearly ravaging occurred and dozens of other necessary ingredients not been present in the ratio they were. Las Vegas might well have remained a quiet dusty town 300 miles from the Pacific typified by brown suits, felt hats, ginger snaps and cheese, high topped shoes and dust in the cuffs, freestone peaches, longjohns, bloomers and running water only when it rained.
As new hotels began to be erected they, and older establishments initiated a "No Negroes Allowed" policy. Blacks attempted to counteract those activities but to no avail. Hotel interests were interested in catering to the wealthy and the wealthy were all white. Blacks were systematically removed from the downtown area. Those who had businesses were told that their licenses would not be renewed unless they agreed to relocate. Where would they go? The remainder of the town was off limits to them. The authorities pointed them towards the McWilliams Townsite.
The place which had been called McWilliams and then Ragtown was now called the "westside". In 1938, it was not a Black community. There was a large number of whites and Mexicans living in the area. Over the next three years, almost every Black person who lived in Las Vegas had been forced to the westside. Whites who lived in the area began to move out because of their reluctance to live side-by-side with Black people. The mass migration did not cause i^ich of a furor because there were not too many people involved. It did not remain that way very long.
By the time Hitler's panzers were blitzing Poland, Nevada was defeating a Race and Color Bill which had been designed to prohibit hotels and other public accomodations from discriminating against Blacks. Black Las Vegans found themselves in a truly total segregated society. Apparently, no one was concerned about the legalities of the situation. Even in abiding by the ruling of the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1898, Blacks were guaranteed equality of accomodations even if those accomodations were segregated. Such was not the case in Las Vegas. Blacks had access to nothing. They had to fare as best as they could.
Beginning in 1905, except in housing, Blacks were free to come and go as they saw fit. There had not been any discrimination in accomodations as it later became. Old timers say that as the gambling interests arrived from the outside, they instituted those polices which would be in effect for the next
twenty years.
-12- Integration: Historical Perspective
When Pearl Bailey first came to Las Vegas the year was 1941. Upon exiting the train she went inside a nearby establishment "and played the machines". The policy of segregation had not yet reached all hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. She reminisces, however, "that a few years later ’people of race’ were barred".
The Will Mastin Trio with Sammy Davis, Jr., were told by the management at the El Rancho "Sorry, we can’t let you have rooms here". It was not until 1955 that they were permitted to walk through the front doors of the New Frontier. Still, while staying at the Sands during another engagement, the pool was off limits to them. The first time Sammy Davis, Jr. went for a swim he was unaware of that policy. Following his "dip" the pool was closed and drained.
The first report of Blacks sitting in the audience of a show in one of the hotels was in reference to an event which took place during the early 1950’s. Josephine Baker, the featured performer at the El Rancho, was aghast when she discovered that there were no Blacks in the audience. She refused to do her second show if the same remained the case. The story has it that maids and porters were hurredily sent home to change and two table were set aside for them near the stage.
When Herb Jeffries, a Black singer, appeared at a local hotel he was provided rooms. The manager informed him that his accompanist, Dick Hazzard, would be housed in "special Negro quarters." Little did he realize that Dick Hazzard was white.
Sammy Davis, Jr. put it best when he said: "In Vegas, for twenty minutes, twice a night our skins had no color. Then, the second we stepped off the stage, we were Colored again".
The aura which permeated the hotel industry was also present in the remainder of the community. Destiny demanded that Blacks in Las Vegas, as in the remainder of the country, force white people to come face to face with their their principles. Change. Always traumatic. Even under the very best of
conditions it is frightening. The principles of American Democracy had been
a myth. Most were reluctant to acknowledge that. To change from a world of mythology to a world of reality was mind boggling.;.-
The NAACP planned a march to protect the elements of discrimination within the Las Vegas community. The march was to take place on March 26, 1960. The date is important because the march would be taking place more than two years before the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a year and a half before James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi in September 11962, three and one half years before the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, four years before the Civil Rights Bill was enacted by the U. S. Congress and just two months before the Freedom Riders embarked on their fact-finding trip through the South in May of 1961. The Moulin Rouge had opened the doors and the NAACP made certain that they remained opened.
Bull Connors of Selma, Alabama had used horses, hoses, hounds and helmeted helpers to scatter marchers in a belter skelter manner while giving local whites the heebie jeebies. Sheriff Leypoldt had merely said that he would "not tolerate any disturbance of the peace during a demonstration". Unlike in Selma, cooler heads prevailed in Las Vegas. Seeking redress for grievances was an old American custom. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph had proposed a march on Washington to protest employment practices in war industries. It was averted because of the realization of the notoriety it would cause internationally. The Las Vegas march was averted through the intervention of the Governor, the Mayor, an editor, representatives of the several hotels and the NAACP.because of the notoriety it would cause. Business leaders realized that few people would have been interested in coming to Las Vegas simply to see yet another demonstration. They could stay home and see such free of charge. Las Vegas had to offer the tourist something other than what they could get at home. If it did not, there would be no need for Las Vegas. Las Vegas was forced to realize that it must serve as a "trail blazer" in all aspects of social inter-
Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world, had to become a model for other places in the United States. Like Rome, of ancient times, all roads led to Las Vegas. Even in 1960 there were millions of tourists who flocked here. They came from places like Macon, Ga., Baton Rouge, La., Misoula, Mont., Ames, Iowa, Manhattan, Kan. and all of the other more familiar places. After March of 1960 all of these visitors were able to see integrated hotels, restaurants and casinos. They saw integration in action and it was not the "boogie man" they had feared it would be. The leadership of our community failed to capitalize on this discovery. It felt that it had done enough and began to ask that same old question: "What do they want now"?
There were die-hards. The Overland Hotel would put up "Closed For Repairs signs whenever Blacks would approach. The Sal Sagev also refused to serve Blacks until the following year. Across the country there were those kinds of businesses which did not view Blacks as Americans. Our own Congressman, Walter Baring, as a response to the efforts of Blacks to bring about equity, had said that "Morals cannot be legislated, nor can private rights be dominated, nor can any group intimidate the American people and the Congress of the United States." In effect he said that Blacks were not Americans. He was also unaware of the Judicial System which spends most of its time legislating morals and invading rights of privacy. Almost a year before, in July of 1963, Senator Cannon’s estimation of the racial condition in Nevada and the quality of life experienced by Blacks had prompted him to suggest that "Local Negro woes are minor". Fortunately, for him, he was not Black.
Governor Sawyer, however, recognized that "Nevada needed a law that would provide punishment for racial discrimination. Discrimination is going to hurt tourism. It’s going to hurt whatever town that discrimination is practiced in". To some extent, his words were heeded. Unfortunately, his
warning was not rapidly or comprehensively heard and acted upon-by the masses.
The next major change in relations to take place in Las Vegas occurred during the decade of the 1940s. It started with less than 200 blacks in the community and ended with nearly 5,000. The 40s was the decade which brought BMI to Clark County. Several thousands of Blacks from the southeastern United States also arrived. They were not well received. Their arrival coincided with the city's removal of Blacks from downtown and their relegation to the westside. The newcomers entered an already overcrowded section of town. The new housing for workers at BMI which were to be built by the McNeil Construction Company had not yet been completed. Housing, however, in the new Huntridge area off East Charleston was well underway. Whites who came here, not only those who would be involved in the operations at BMI, but also those involved in supportive services, did not experience as much difficulty in securing housing as did blacks.
Dormitories would be constructed in the new town of Henderson but there were provisions only for accomodations for 200 blacks in the rear section which was called Carver Park. White workers had a much larger area which was called Victory Village. The bulk of the facilities which were built were for white workers. It was a matter of convenience. Having the working men living nearby would reduce their expence in going back and forth to work. Blacks, on the other hand, were required to travel from Las Vegas to the plant site. Since it had been anticipated that the project would only be operational for the duration of the war, many of the city leaders were not anxious to construct housing for a population which would be, at the very most, a short term population. Even the dormitories which were constructed were intended to be only temporary quarters and the*were constructed of a material which could be very easily dismantled.
Conditions on the westside deteriorated. There were some who were eager
to point out the squalor and blighted condition of the area and they were equal-
ly eager to attribute those circumstances to the mere presence of Black people. They did not choose to acknowledge the fact that those conditions existed because of their refusal to provide adequate housing and as a result, there was a natural over crowding of the area.
Blacks who came here during the early 1940s doubled and tripled up in whatever housing they could find—if they were lucky. Others slept whever they could find an out of the way spot. They lived in tents and cardboard shacks. No funds were made available to them to erect housing. Banks and other lending institutions were not providing funds to Blacks to finance the building of homes. The deplorable conditions under which blacks lived was a condition forced on them and there was not a great deal that they could do about it.
Military installations in the area also contributed, negatively, to the situation. Soldiers who brought their families with them did not find suitable or adequate housing for them.
As the population of the community increased, the quality of life for blacks decreased. By the time the decade of the 50s arrived, the population of Clark County was approaching 40,000. Little by little the black population also increased. Yet, the city fathers refused to address the needs of the westside. While the remainder of the community was showing signs of prosperity, the westside was slowly going down the tubes. The residents of the area, through political actiongroups and the NAACP, implored the city to at least manifest some degree of reciprosity on the tax dollars going into the city's coffers from the westside taxpayers. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Had the authorities taken the initiative, then, to rectify the developing deplorable conditions of the westside, it could have been done very cheaply. By postponing such action, the cost grew increasingly greater.
It appears that since the area had become predominantly black, no one was concerned about it. There were no Blacks in public office to insure that the
needs of the westside would at least be brought up at meetings and those members
of the commission who wer all white, did not consider Blacks to be a part of their constituency.
The development of the westside was sporadic and irregular. The economic characteristics of the place set it aside as a kind of unique territory within the city of Las Vegas. Its low level of economic development was partially the result of the manner in which it was viewed—its conceptual identity. The obvious manifestations of limited economic development associated with the westside are in large measure a reflection of the economic status of the population residing there.
Because of the relegation of blacks to a particular area of town, along with the segregationist policies adopted during the late 1930s and the early 1940s, they were forced to establish their own businesses. BLACK BUSINESSES: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
The first businesses to appear in Las Vegas in 1905, were all white owned. They included such enterprises as a bank, a mercantile, hotel, ice house, lumber yard and a few others. The business district developed primarily along Main and Fremont Streets.
There were limited instances of minority involvement in business. By 1919, there was a Japanese barber and, also, Wong Hau had opened a Chinese restaurant. Blacks were involved, on the fringes, with activities on Block 16. For the thirteen years following the adoption of the Eithteenth Amendment until its repeal in 1933, with the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment, the bulk of jobs held by Blacks was either as domestics, porters or rum runners. The newspapers will filled with the constant flow of arrests of blacks who were involved in the latter.
The 1930s, did bring about changes. A large number of blacks had migrated here seeking work on the dam project. Some few established small businesses
in the "negro" district. J.R. Johnson worked as a plasterer for 20 years before
his death in 1932. John T. Cahlan recalls a "Mammy Pinston who used to have what she called a plantation kitchen on Third Street between Ogden and Stewart". It is reported that she specialized in southern fried chicken and that it was a favorite eating place of a number of people. As the dam got underway and the beginning of the flow of sightseers got underway, A.H. Snead went into the business of selling handouts and brochures which pointed out interesting things to see. As the 1930s wore on, the area between Stewart and Ogden and First and Fifth Streets saw the beginning of numerous Black businesses.
Ike and Nancy Pullman leased a large section of land, for 99 years, on Third St. Other Blacks did the same. Because of the restrictions which had been placed on Blacks in 1909 and strictly enforced since then and the city’s efforts at keeping them on block 16, the city was anxious that they acquire property in that area.
Once the dam was completed, the sentiments of the city fathers turned around 180°. Suddenly, Blacks were no longer wanted in the downtown area. They were systematically removed. Those who had businesses were refused license renewals if they did not move to other locations. One by one they were forced out.
As the 1930s came to a close, the racial atmosphere of Las Vegas changed for the worse. Local public accomodations began to close their doors to Black patronage. Between 1905 and 1940, Blacks could frequent any public places in the city. As that era came to a close, they had to begin to look in other directions to have their needs met.
The beginning of World War II had its impact on Las Vegas in more ways than one. Of immediate concern to us is the rapid influx of Blacks because of BMI and the newly opened nearby military installations. As "old timer" Blacks were forced out of downtown and new comers arrived, a place had to be found for them. That place was the "westside". Older white residents did not want Blacks in the area. The westside had not been a black area. In 1940, white residents of the
westside sought passage of an ordinance designed to keep Blacks out. The petition
was submitted to Mayor Russell and the City Commissioners on February 1, 1940 by the Westside Improvement Association.
R* Christensen, President of the Las Vegea Colored Progressive Club, responded to the petition. He asked that the city not "segregate a portion of Westside for Caucasians only." The NAACP made a similar request. Fortunately, the city did not turn a deaf ear to them. It was faced with choosing between two options -permitting Blacks to remain where they were or permitting them to move to the westside. From the early days of the McWilliams townsite, that area had not been smiled upon by the city. Once again it was not smiled upon.
The 1940s ushered in a period of segregation. For the twenty year period extending up to I960,..a town within a town developed. Transplanted Black businesses appeared on the westside. It was apartheid—Las Vegas style. Blacks worked at BMI, downtown, the newly developing Strip, in the military and in private homes. Once they punched out on the clock they returned to either Carver Park in Henderson or to the westside. A few managed to remain downtown.
Black businesses on the westside were the visual results of segregation. Since Blacks could no longer frequent "the" restaurants, hotels and casinoes they were forced to build their own. P.M. Snyder opened a fountain shop, there was Garrett’s barber shop, Hughes grocery store, Johnson’s community store, Gilbert brothers market, the Dollar Market, and others. There were also the Harlem Club, the Cotton Club, the Lousiana Club, Brown Derby, El Rio and the Club Alabam. Most of these establishments were located on Jackson, D, Van Buren and F Streets.
1947 was a bumper year for business ventures on the westside. William Jack- son opened a barber shop on the corner of F and Jackson St. Mrs. Mae Harris and
Florence Elmore, mother and daughter, operated the Sunny Sundry store where they specialized in everything from Sunday dinners to candy, chewing gum, lotions and nylons. Lorenze Watson, a graduate of Edith Collins Beauty School of San Francisco, was busy styling hair at Florence Elmore’s Beauty Shop. H. W. Garrett opened an automobile repair shop on Adams Avenue and North E Street along with a Mobil Oil and gas station. The first Black doctor, a chiropractor, arrived in
early June. Dr. Roy G. DeHay opened his office at 520 Jackson Avenue.
A housing boom was also underway. 223 new homes on the Clem and Francis Malone property was being built. Those homes were being sold for $7,000. The westside was growing, but for all the wrong reasons. It was growing because Las Vegas had chosen to disassociate itself from its Black residents.
Numerous other businesses were initiated on the westside. Most of them were black owned. In some cases there were duplication but they were necessary.
The black population continued to increase as the 1950s got underway. The second decade of segregation only compounded matters. The city was reluctant to make the necessary improvements. Houses were going up, businesses were opening but yet there were dirt streets, little police protection, no street lights, no sidewalks or other services. A whole new generation of Blacks came to know Las Vegas as simply a reminder of the conditions they thought they had left behind in places like Arkansas, Louisiana or Mississippi.
1955 was a turning point year for west Las Vegas. The Moulin Rouge, the first of the "integrated" hotels opened. The arrival of Dr. James I. West brought the first Black physician to the town. He was soon followed by others. These developments helped spearhead the confrontation which brought about the demise of "JIM CROW" in Las Vegas. The presence of jim crow practices was not without cost and the price paid was the perpetuation of a policy of prejudice and privation more ponderous than the populace had presumed.
Black businesses had thrived during its heyday. Jackson Street became a center of activity. The Cove Hotel was bursting at the seams. The clubs, however small they might have been, were filled constantly. Blacks who worked on the strip or downtown could only find outlets for their leisure time in the cafes and restaurants of the westside. The grocery stores did good business. Most people who lived in the area did not have access to a steady means of transportation and found it convenient to do their shopping in the nearby all black
A sizeable portion of all retail outlets on the Westside are Black-oriented businesses. This is a common phenomenon of those kinds of communities around the country. The proliferation of these kinds of businesses indicate the fact that a growing number of Blacks are interested in entering the entrepreneurial arena. However, the types of businesses most enter will only enable them to become marginal capitalists. Limited investment capital and lack of experience does not provide them with much leverage.
For the twenty year period between 1940 and 1960, a business community developed on the westside. None of them were major operations. The bulk of the business activity of the residents took place outside of the area. It was not until after the segregation barriers were removed that changes occurred in the business structure of the westside.
Initially, the breakdown of segregation negatively affected Black businesses. Some terminated immediatedly. The decade of the 1960s witnessed a kind of flip flop of black business involvement. While integration enabled blacks to participate as patrons in businesses outside of the westside, it did not enable them to participate as entrepreneurs. Blacks opened no businesses outside of the westside. That condition promoted a proliferation of black oriented businesses which, with a fairly stabilized population, created a condition in. which returns on the investment of capital was restrained.
With the beginning of the 1960s the habits of local blacks began to change drastically. Previously, they were excluded from engaging in the more lucrative careers. Once integration occurred and as more blacks became involved in moneymaking occupations, a change in the manner in which blacks were perceived by the white business community took place. Those same businessmen had known before that blacks did not hold any real money making positions. Resultantly, they did not pursue the black consumer. As that condition changed and as the average flack family's income began to inch upwards, notice was taken.
In the 1920s the average income of Black families was somewhere in the
neighborhood of $600 per year, based on the kinds of salaries quoted in the classified sections of local newspapers for certain jobs. In 1930, that amount decreased until Blacks were finally hired on the dam project. Due to the limited number who were working and the larger percentage (70%) which was unemployed, and the amount paid laborers on the project, the average income plummeted to just barely $300 per year per family. The 1940s brought a major jump in salaries. BMI had as its base pay $1.13 per.hour and workers quite often worked 48 hours per week. They earned $54.24 per week, $216.96 per month and $2,603.52 per year. Most blacks who were here were working. Clearly the incomes was on the rise. By the 1950s, that income was up to approximately $4,000 and by the 1960s it was near $6,000 and finally by 1970 it had reached $9,000. In spite of the increases, Blacks consistently remained approximately 40% behind whites in incomes.
Buying power was increasing even though Blacks were lagging behind. The absence of major shopping opportunities on the westside had adverse effects on the buying power and habits of the residents. Not only did they have limited amounts of funds to function with but the buying capacity was reduced by the costs involved in merely going shopping. Today, with the rising costs of gasoline, an unhealthy additional burden is placed on the residents of the westside. The average person must import practically all consumer goods because the nearest shopping areas are so far removed from the immediate community.
For a brief time during the late 1960s, limited overtures at introducing major shopping was initiated on the westside. The wave of racial disturbances which ravaged the entire country applied the brakes. In cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, merchants in Black communities were hardest hit. Most packed up and left vowing never to return. The "Las Vegas Riot" of 1969 was not really a riot. It lasted less than a week and there was no real destruction of property or loss of life. Major businesses which were located in the black community, fearing that the worse was yet to come, followed the lead of businesses
in other parts of the country—they withdrew.
It has not yet been recognized nor fully appreciated that Las Vegas is profoundly different from Los Angles and those other places. They have a long history and even longer traditions of racial discrimination. In Las Vegas, that reality existed for only twenty years and it is sandwiched between thirty- five years, on the one hand when such was not the case and the last twenty years when conditions, however slow, have improved.
For so long as residents of the westside must spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes on gasoline while travelling great distances in order to shop, there will not be those sulplus amounts necessary for such things as upgrading homes and thereby neighborhoods.
Once businesses locate on the westside, the horrendous percentages of unemployment, particularly among youth, will decline. As that figure diminishes, the kinds of stresses and deteriorating self-concepts, which are prerequisites to "riots", of young black Las Vegans will be halted.
As the westside develops, so also does the major part of the community.
Las Vegas has the opportunity to become the model city of the United States. It must, however, assume responsibility for the entire community and not just parts while totally ignoring the westside. The upcoming census will show that the black population of Las Vegas is approaching 60,000. At the point when a greater part of that figure is permitted to be actively involved in the economic
development of the community, the entire community will benefit.