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"The Reintegration of Las Vegas": paper by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1989-04-26 to 1989-04-29


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Unpublished manuscripts file. Presented at the Western Social Science Association, 31st Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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man000935. 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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3/it /Sb p.3
Letters to the editor
All letter -, should be addressed to Rebel, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway will not be accepted after 5:oo pn be dropped off at The Yellin’ Reb< Moyer Student Union.
No, I didn’t
I am beginning to feel like a paraphased clbne of Tom load. You remember Tom don’t you? From the movie The Grapes of Wrath?
Remember when he returned home from a stint in the penitentiary and his mother came out of the houses looked at him and saidSDid you bust out Tom?” His answer was in the negative.
Subsequently,®each of his family members, in turn, posed the same or a reasonable facsimile of the same question. Each time his answer was the same. Finally, as the last of the clan climbed out of a truck and was in the process of “fixing his mouth” to ask the same question, Tom beat him to the punch and said: “No, I didn’t bust out.”
Over the past couple of weeks or so, since the appearance of a letter complimentary of a lecture I did several months ago, a number of our clan here at UNLV have either approached me or phoned me and have asked or commented: “Did you write that letter?” or “nice letter you wrote1 ’ or “is that your A.K.A.?” or other such similar questions or comments.
There have been a few who have simply expressed congratulatory sentiments. Sadly, their numbers are far outweighed by the others.
Because such comments and phone calls continue to be made. I feel compelled to follow Tom load’s example and anticipate future queries or “lighthearted,’^‘all-in-fun” offerings by saying: No. I did not write the letter.
Roosevelt Fitzgerald
APRIL 26-29, 1989
Roosevelt Fitzgerald
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Founded just a quarter century before the official arrival of the depression in 1905, Las Vegas underwent its first major demographic upheaval during the 1930s. The change was initiated by the Hoover Dam construction project which got underway at the beginning of that decade. For its first twenty-five years, Las Vegas had remained a small, provencial community. By 1930, the year before the actual construction on the project was begun, its population had grown to only 5137* Of that number, there were only 178 blacks or 2.8 percent. Also included in the population were Hispanics, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, and Native Americans. With the lone exception of the Indian reservation, there was no officially sanctioned segregation in Las Vegas during that quarter-century. There did develop, however, an area closely akin to a squatters camp just to the northwest of Las Vegas but not a part of the townsite itself which was commonly referred to as the "colored section." Thanks to the 1910 census reports, which furnished name, race, occupation, and address, it is clear that those groups, especially blacks, were not restricted, during the early years, to any particular area of town J Further, there were a handful of black residents 2 who lived on the outskirts of Las Vegas on ranches and small truck farms.
Even though that condition prevailed at a time frequently referred to as the "segregation!st era" by some historians, there was at least one attempt to bring segregation to early Las Vegas. As early as 1909, Walter Bracken, a local agent of the Los Angeles Land and Water Company, which owned many of the lots sold in Las Vegas at the time, wrote a letter to
his supervisor in Los Angeles, H. I. Bettis, which illustrates his attempt
to bring segregation to Las Vegas. In the original platting which had taken place, block Sixteen had been set aside as the "red light" district. Lots on all other blocks, with the exception of those adjacent to the "red light" block had sold reasonably well. Because block Sixteen was the location of all saloons, gambling houses and houses of "ill repute", there were not many prospective homebuilders who wished to be closely aligned to it. There were three other blocks which were almost tangent to block Sixteen and they were most affected. Block One, block Fifteen and block Seventeen surrounded the "red light" district. Of the three, block Fifteen, to the south, was least affected and that was partially due to its lots fronting in directions other than that of block Sixteen. Block One, to the west and block Seventeen, to the east, were not as fortunate. Bracken suggested that " shown on the price list, block 17 could be converted into a residence district for a certain class of people, which is badly needed here in Las Vegas, so that they will not be scattering around through the town." Seven days before he dispatched his letter to Bettis, he had received a letter from F.A, Waters, another agent for the Los Angeles Land and Water Company, which presented his ideas on marketing procedures which might be ultilized in regards to both block One and block Seventeen. He suggested that "all prices (be} the same in block one, unless this block be opened to the red light district, and block 17 closed and turned into residence district, which would be the district desired by colored people and Mexicans, etc., for residence district. There is no record of anything coming of their efforts to segregate at that time. However, there are indications that those efforts were on-going.
A year and a half later Bracken continued his efforts to bring segregation to Las Vegas. By his own implication, we know that there had been other letters to Bettis on the subject.
Referring to recent correspondence in reference to the platting of a few new blocks South of town, I wish to add that I think it would be advisable to also plat 5 blocks at the same time and under the same conditions North of town. Our colored population, Mexicans etc., is growing very rapidly and unless we have some place for this class of people they will be scattered all through our town. You will notice in my pricing of lots that I have made the prices of lots in 17 such that they can be picked up by the above described classes. Blocks 16 and 17 are designated "Red Light" districts but there is no likelihood of 17 ever being used for this purpose or even the east half of Block 16 as the saloons are complying with the Hotel Law and spreading all over town and it would make little difference to colored people and foreigners about living so close to the Red Light District. He of course could not herd these classes of people to any certain block, but it be their desire to get down in that part of town, and other property owners in town are refusing to sell them property where they will be mixed with the white people.5
Once again, Bracken's attempts proved fruitless as the small and slowly growing black population of Las Vegas was not restricted to any one block or. area of town. Between 1910 and 1920 the Las Vegas population grew from 1,500 to 2,034 and the black population from less than a dozen to 58. The new black population resided on several different blocks
6 of early Las Vegas and those several blocks were not in any one area.
During that period and on through the 1920s, whatever hints of segregation there might have been were scattered and minimal. Las Vegas, however, was not without racism. Miscegenation laws dating back to the state's nineteenth founding were still in place. Additionally, black men were not permitted to frequent the houses of ill repute on block Sixteen and would not have access to such facilities until such a place opened for blacks in the "colored section" at the Idle Hour Club in the 1930s.?
Early surviving residents of early Las Vegas speak fondly of the friendly relations which existed between the races and are quick to make such comments
as; "We helped each other whatever the color and everybody got alone just fine.
That sense of community, to whatever degree it indeed existed, was altered by the Stock Market crash. As in other places, employment was negatively affected. As economic conditions worsened, competition for those jobs that remained intensified. As early as 1919, there had been signs of growing racial resentments in the job market of Las Vegas. Those resentments had more to do with Asian labor than with other minority 9 groups but they opened the door for the inclusion of other groups. The 1920s were fairly prosperous times for Las Vegas and there was not much cause to compete economically. The depression changed that. Even before the contract was let for the construction of the Hoover Dam, there were signs of changes in the racial atmosphere of the labor market. There were complaints lodged with the Immigration Bureau that aliens, Mexicans and Asians, were hired on with the railroad ahead of American citizens. 0 The jobs in question were jobs which "American citizens" had not previously wanted and those referred to as aliens were in fact also American citizens who happened to have names like Garcia or Chung.The actual contract for the Hoover Dam project excluded those of the "mongolian" race from the work force.
The dam project ushered in the first meaningful occasion of large scale discrimination and segregation and had to do both with’the hiring policies of the project and housing in the new federal town of Boulder City, Nevada which was established, partially, to provide housing for the workers. Until July of 1932, Leonard Blood, Director of the Labor Office .13 in Las Vegas refused to hire black employees on the dam project. The first Native Americans were not hired until afterward and the handful of Mexican Americans who worked there were residents of Las Vegas.
Boulder City became, therefore, an all-white community. Further, a number of saloons which opened along the new Boulder Highway catered to an all-white clientele. Until July of 1932, black job hopefuls who arrived at Las Vegas were viewed as vagrants and were treated accordingly. They were either chased out of town or they were arrested and fined or put to 15 work on street cleaning projects.
The excitement at the dam was known nationwide and by the mid 1930s, many came just to view what was touted as one of the wonders of the world. In 1936, there was a reported excess of 300,000 visitors.Downtown Las Vegas was not, at that time, prepared to accommodate that many visitors and that necessitated a surge in hotel expansion and development. Many of the older hotels did in fact expand and several'-new"establishments appeared. The few black owned businesses, being undercapitalized, were systematically forced out of the downtown area. ? Fremont Street became known as the "great white way" primarily because of the appearance of the abundance of neon but also, in the minds of some, because black businesses were driven out.
Because of their numbers, there was not much that the black population could do to halt the transition. However, in 1939, a Race and Color Bill, designed to curb the ever-increasing instances of discrimination against the black population of the state, especially in Las Vegas, was introduced 1 o in the Nevada Assembly. No action was taken on the Bill beyond comments that there was no need to adopt such a proposal considering that the rights of black citizens, as with all others, were already protected by the Constitution.
In 1941, a California businessman, Burt Katleman, built the El Rancho Vegas Hotel. It was the first of what would be a series of hotels
constructed on the old Los Angeles Highway which would become known as the "Strip." That same year, the demographics of southern Nevada changed radically. The new town of Henderson, Nevada was founded as the site of 20
the Basic Magnesium plant. Las Vegas, at the time, had a total population of less than 8000 with 178 being black. Boulder City's population had shrunken to less than 3000 and all were white. The new town of Henderson brought a population of almost 14,000 with more than 3000 being black. Over the next half-dozen years, housing segregation erupted and segregation and discrimination in the newly developing hotel/casino industry and other businesses followed suit albeit more imperceptibly. The work force which resided at the job site in Henderson was completely segregated. Further, not nearly enough housing was provided for those who were black. Many were forced to fend for themselves and there was absolutely no available housing in Las Vegas proper. The overflow black population gravitated to the McWilliams Townsite, just to the north and adjacent to Las Vegas, and created, what became, a predominantly black community which is commonly referred to as the "westside."
As those changes occurred, the Last Frontier Hotel opened, in 1943, south of the El Rancho. Within three years of that opening, it provided a blueprint which illustrates to what extent segregation in Las Vegas had grown in just a few years. A regional meeting of the Girl Scouts of America was required to obtain special permission from the hotel's management to congregate in its meeting rooms. The conference was planned without the organization being aware of the segregation policy of the hotel. Upon their arrival, glack girl scouts were refused admittance.
21 "They needed special dispensation in order to enter. Also, by the mid 1940s, the local movie houses had become segregated as were the
hospitals, graveyards, swimming-pools, jail ;celIs, fire department, police department and the Rotary Club.
During the last week of December of 1946, Benjamin "Bugsy" 8iegal opened the Fabulous Flamingo Hotel. During the first two weeks, Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat headlined the entertainment. When they were not on stage they could be seen gambling, lounging near the pool, in the dining areas or visiting one of the numerous other establishments of the city. During the second week of January of 1947, Lena Horne replaced Durante on the marquee. The first of what became standard segregationist policy was introduced with her arrival. While she was provided living accommodations at the hotel in one of the individual cabanas, she was 99
not allowed to enter any of the public areas of the hotel. Xavier Cugat, who was Hispanic, was not so denied. Siegal's companion, Virginia Hill, originally a New Yorker as was Siegel, and formerly associated with the Cotton Club which had a policy of providing black entertainment but not of allowing black patrons to enter, was the director of entertainment and put into place, at the Flamingo, the same policies as existed at the Cotton Club. Other hotels followed suit. Not all of them had the facilities to provide private quarters for black entertainers as did the Flamingo and a few others. In the absence of such, a growing number of black entertainers were forced to find accommodations elsewhere.
By 1947, when this practice started, and as a result of the great influx of black workers to the area due to the opening of the Magnesium plant in 1941, a sizeable and distinguishable black community had developed on the "westside." It was home for more than 90% of the black population of southern Nevada. It was there that the great majority of black entertainers who performed in Las Vegas during those years had to
had to find shelter. There were not many homes in the area of the westside of sufficient size to meet the demands. Those few that were were in the enviable position of setting their own rates no matter the limitations and inconveniences of the location. One of the better descriptions of the area is provided by Sammy Davis, Jr. who, along with his father and uncle made up the Will Mastin Trio, and who began his long association with Las Vegas during the mid 1940s.
Upon their arrival to Las Vegas and their discovery that rooms were not provided ath the hotel where they were performing, they were whisked away to a private home on the westside. Davis describes it as "Tobacco Road." The severity of the matter was compounded upon their arrival at their landlord's home, Mrs. Cartwright, when they discovered that her room rates were almost twice what they would have been at the El Rancho. When they voiced their sentiments aloud, her response was simply, "They why don't you go and live at the El Rancho Vegas...
Business is business. I ve got my own troubles."
Other black entertainers who performed in Las Vegas, with the exception of those few who were provided separate accommodations at the hotels where they performed, between 1947 and 1955, were forced to live under those conditions. Local black residents could frequent none of the large hotels and casinoes. There were a few small cafes where they could purchase food on a carry-out basis in the downtown area. The
larger restaurants and even the drive-ins did not welcome their business. Further, due to those discriminatory practices, blacks were not among the thousands of tourists to come to Las Vegas.
Because of the ever-expanding discriminatory practices, Las Vegas' growing black residential community was forced to develop its own business
-9- district. A town within a town developed. Ironically, these changes for the worse took place in Las Vegas as steps were being taken, nationally, to improve racial conditions. The United States armed forces was integrated by Executive Order of Harry Truman in 1943. The year before, Branch Rickey had introduced Jackie Robinson to major league baseball. Additionally, even though not always enforced, a series of Supreme Court decisions, dating back to the Buchanan vs. Warley case of 1917 which declared it to be unconstitutional to restrict the place of habitat for blacks to certain sections of any town or city or metropolitan area was rendered. Among the other cases of the time were; Smith vs. Allwright (1944) which ended the exclusion of blacks from state primary elections, Morgan vs. Virginia (1946) which voided jim crowism in interstate commerce, Sipuel vs. University of Oklahoma which declared that each of of the several states were obliged to provide for each citizen's equal educational opportunity, and Shelley vs. Kraemer (1948) which, ruled that racially restricted covenants violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decade ended with McLaurin vs. Oklahoma State Regents and Sweatt vs. Painter which struck down state laws for the higher or professional education of blacks as failing to meet the requirements of equality.
Many Las Vegans think of the 1950s as the decade of great hotel expansion and construction in Las Vegas. An average of almost two new hotels per year opened during that decade. Each successive enterprise outdid those proceeding it in size and glamour. The ostentataciousness of Fremont Street and the Strip was surpassed only by the squalor of the westside. In the latter, there were many marginally capitalized businesses.
Their presence, nonetheless, did provide a source of employment for many
of its residents. There, they were able to gain employment in categories which were closed to them in the larger community. In the hotels and casinoes of Las Vegas, they found their employment opportunities limited to janitorial, maids, groundskeers and porters positions. On the westside, they were not only small entrepreneuers but also card dealers, bartenders, store clerks, barbers, beauticians, cooks, waitresses and waiters and any number of other things. A thriving economy, of sorts, existed there. There were not, however, any hotels. What accommodations there were were in that handful of private homes which provided rooms for black entertainers who performed at the hotels.
Even though the absence of hotel accommodations inhibited black tourism, there remained a constant influx of black residents who came primarily from the south. They went there because of the encouragement of relatives and friends from their hometowns who had found employment in the burgeoning hotel industry. In spite of the fact that the jobs available to them were menial and that they lived in segregation, the conditions were substantially better than those they left in the south in many ways. Not only could they earn more money than they had in such places as Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi but they could also vote. The fact that they were segregated and lived in not the best of conditions was little different than it had been in the south. That condition was one of the factors which prompted some to refer to Las Vegas, indeed
the entire state, as the "Mississippi of the West. Still, on the whole, the quality of life for blacks in Las Vegas was better than that which they had left in the south.
As the black community grew, so too did the need for black professionals.
Not only were they invariably better educated but many of them
came to Las Vegas from areas other than the deep south. They were less willing to accept the racial status-quo. As their numbers increased, the local chapter of the NAACP became much more active in the area of public accommodations.
A handful of black entertainers spurred on the initial changes. Sammy Davis was allowed to bring a party including his grandmother to see his show. Harry Belafonte was allowed to gamble at the Sands Hotel. Josephine Baker threatened not to do a second show if there were no blacks in the audience. Nat King Cole was given carte blanch at the Sands. Finally, in 1955, the Moulin Rouge opened as the first black hotel and became the first interracial hotel in Las Vegas since the onset of segregation during the decade before.
It should be noted, that formal steps toward segregating Las Vegas did not occur until the mid 1930s. The maximum lenght of that segregation in Las Vegas was twenty-five years and the minimum length, once it had become all inclusive, was thirteen years. The greatest devastation came as a result of it inhibiting black tourism during the earlier days of the development of a tourist industry. On the local level, in terms of numbers of people it adversly affected, the black population of Las Vegas in 1935 was just over fifty, in 1940 it was 178, in 1950 it was less than 5,000 out of a total population of 160,083 for the entire county and by 1960 it had grown to almost 7,000 of a total metropolitan population of 69,000. Even though the numbers were small, the effects were equally disturbing as we passed the mid-way point of the 1950s and became involved in a civil rights movement which heightened the counsciousness of racism and prejudice and discrimination of every American.
The opening of the Moulin Rouge Hotel in 1955 did much to help bring
on the desired change. While it was initially intended only as a black hotel, from the very beginning, it was in fact an integrated hotel. This is not to suggest that the extent of the integration was great as far as the hotel part of the operation was concerned. In the casino area, however, it was much a different story. There were many white people among the opening night crowd and there were also inestimable celebrities in attendance. This latter was to such an extent, that it served as an attraction for even more people to patronize the establishment.
The Moulin Rouge experienced great success during its first seven months of operation. Its triumph lay in the fact that it brought Las Vegas to a point from which other areas of the country moved--segregation. It is interesting to note that the interval between the date of the opening of the Moulin Rouge and the beginning of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which so many feel to be the official beginning of the civil rights movement, was only seven months. In many ways, Las Vegas found itself having to speed up its process toward recognition of the rights of all citizens.
George Rudiak, who had arrived to Las Vegas in 1946 and who was later elected to the Nevada Assembly, introduced a piece of civil rights legislation in 1953. It failed by one vote. The purpose of that Bill was to inhibit the further expansion of discrimination in the state. The Moulin Rouge accomplished what the failure of the passage of that Bill was unsuccessful in doing. Becoming an integrated establishment, it gave pause to many of those who had opposed the measure. While the Moulin Rouge fell on hard times at about the time that the Mongtomery bus boycott was initiated, the statement it made carried over not only in the community of Las Vegas but also in the state of Nevada, It established the fact that an integrated establishment did not represent
the terrible consequences which so many feared and that the public was not universally opposed to such an enterprise.
To many Americans, the May 17, 1954 Supreme Court decision rendered with the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case which overturned the the fifty-six year old practice of "separate but equal" established by the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896 was a turning point in American social history. Just two months before, southern Nevada witnessed its first appearance, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, of the Ku Klux Klan. Migrant workers in Overton and Moapa, just to the north 27 of Las Vegas, found themselves under attack by the KKK. Many of those
workers were black and had had their share and fill of the Klan in other 28 places and were soon driven off the places where they worked. At least one of the local newspapers ran editorials condemning the activities 29
of the nightriders. There was, however, a remarkable absence of letters to the editor of the two local newspapers in support of those sentiments.
As the civil rights movement spread throughout the nation, some 1 derivation did indeed take place. Evidence of Klan activity in Clark 30 County continued for the new few years. By 1957, more attempts were made to enact civil rights legislation in Nevada with the same results of earlier efforts. Of course, there were the expected reactions by the JnS* 31
Klan and its sympathizers with cross burnings and other acts.
It is apparent that the national civil rights movement had an effect on Las Vegas. Partially owing to the fact that Las Vegas was, by that time, an international city, much attention was drawn to it. The city owed its very existence to a growing tourist trade. In the south, where much of the civil rights movement was centered, there had been an awareness of the economic upheavals demonstrations, especially marches and sit-ins,
had on those communities. Fear of such demonstrations occuring in Las Vegas became apparent. As the 1950s came to an end, the approach for achieving integration in Las Vegas changed. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People, borrowing from, the tactics utilized by A. Phillip Randolph in the early 1940s in securing employment opportunities for blacks in the defense industries, threatened a march on the "Strip." Fearing a re-enactment of what had occurred in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Greensboro, and Nashville, the Las Vegas Resort Association became more amenable to discussing the problem. After much negotiations, it was finally agreed that Las Vegas' hotels and casinoes and other public establishments would desegregate at 6:00 p.m. on March 26, 1960.33
All of the major hotels complied except one, the Sal Sagev, It put into place a policy of displaying an "Out of Order" sign whenever any black person approached. Representatives of the NAACP visited all the hotels and casinoes to verify compliance and were satisfied with that lone exception. There was not any great rush of black, patrons to any of those places. The fact that they could go if they so desired was the important factor. Black tourism obviously improved. The downside of the process, however, was that as more local blacks began to frequent those establishments, it did have negative effects on the local black business community. That, however, is another subject which will be discussed in another paper.
There were many other issues which would require attention now that integration had been achieved. Employment opportunities in the resort industry, school integration and housing integration are but a few. The important step, however, was bringing about that initial change.
It is the author's theory that the integration of Las Vegas' resort
industry had a national effect. Owing to the fact that tourists from around the country, indeed the world, visited Las Vegas, they were able to observe, first hand, that integration in public places did indeed work.
That observation quite possibly helped allay the fears that many might have had on the reprecussions of integration in their hometowns of New Orleans, Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Indianapolis and other places. Here again, those are other stories to be written about at some future time.
Segregation, to whatever degree, existed in Las Vegas from the mid 1930s until 1960. It makes for an interesting study in that both its origin and its extinction can be pinpointed. This has only been a general history of its evolution.