We’ve all heard the adage “history repeats itself.” And it’s a familiar refrain for thousands of African Americans across the country and Silver State whose struggle for equal rights didn’t stop in the 1960s with the civil rights movement.
“The work is unending because we forget our history,” said Claytee White, director of UNLV’s Oral History Research Center and a Black woman who has lived in Las Vegas for three decades. “History is vital. History is as important as water and air.”
Equality – at least in writing – is about 59 years old, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And just as it takes time for healing, White said those same wounds can be reopened if we don’t heed the lessons from the past.
“Until structural racism in every area of our lives – education, the legal system, housing, medical care, employment – is eliminated, we still have to fight for privileges like those granted by the CROWN Act that allow Blacks to secure a job, while wearing any hairstyle they want.”
Las Vegas is synonymous with entertainment from the likes of singers such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nat King Cole. But the ability of these famous African Americans — along with thousands of other Blacks who fled the Jim Crow South and pushed westward for a better life — to live, work, and play wasn’t as glitzy as the city’s twinkling lights. And some of the obstacles continue today.
Ahead of Black History Month, we sat down with White to chat about Nevada’s Union roots, life in Las Vegas during the civil rights movement, the casinos that made a difference, and how present-day Las Vegans are equipped to handle what’s ahead.
Let’s talk about Nevada’s roots – what attracted people here, including African Americans, and what was its status at the end of the Civil War?
The Comstock silver mine was discovered near Virginia City in 1859. Because of all that wealth and the potential for it, people started to migrate here and the population grew. Nevada was ready to become a state just a few years later. Abraham Lincoln was running for a second term in 1864, in the middle of a Civil War, and wanted Nevada to enter the Union – it would securely enter the union as a free state.
In Southern Nevada, the first Black man was included in the 1870 census — John Howell. He owned property, part of which is located at Springs Preserve.
But life remained difficult for much of the Black population after the Civil War, primarily southern Blacks who had to deal with openly accepted hate groups, vagrancy laws, and convict leasing. On the positive side, this was also a period when about 1,500 African Americans were elected into office in the former Confederacy because of so many free men voting. But the general everyday hardships persisted, contributing to the Great Migration (1910-1970) which saw millions of Blacks move both north and west.
They were escaping terror. We had domestic terrorism taking place by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. People were terrified, harassed, and warned that they would be lynched. The migration from the south continued through World War II and afterward because people wanted a better life — education for their children, to be able to vote, and the same access to rights and privileges that every other American citizen had.
What role did Nevada play in the Great Migration?
When Las Vegas was settled in 1905, the railroad came through Las Vegas traveling from Southern California to Salt Lake City, Utah. They needed a place to take on ice, water, and conduct repairs, and that’s why Las Vegas is here today. It was that hub of activity that drew people to this area. And we know from some of our very early oral histories that Black people, along with Hispanics, Asians, and Whites, were part of this very diverse group migrating to Las Vegas.
In the 1930s, the Hoover Dam was constructed. More and more people poured into this area. Then, with America’s entrance in WWII in the 1940s, industries for the war effort made their way out here. A massive magnesium plant to support the war basically started the city of Henderson. African Americans are recruited from little places like Fordyce, Arkansas, and Tallulah, Louisiana.
Housing was constructed for them at BMI. Black people live west of the railroad tracks, the opposite side from downtown. There’s also a housing area built for Blacks in Henderson. Carver Park is for the Black workers and Victory Village is for the White workers. This all starts the great migration to Southern Nevada.
We’re getting professionals coming here as part of this migration, starting with Black business owners in 1905. And in the 1940s and 50s, the first Black doctors, lawyers, and school teachers arrived.
How did the civil rights movement impact Blacks in Las Vegas?
The civil rights movement here in Las Vegas is different from what we saw on television coming out of the South. We don’t have dogs or water hoses being used against Black people fighting for their rights during marches. It is done in a more humane fashion here. The president of the NAACP in Las Vegas, who happened to be the first Black dentist in the area, sent a message to the mayor of Las Vegas in 1960 to start negotiations for integration in the city. The Black community prepares for a march on the Strip because they don’t think the casino industry is going to give in – and we know who ran the casino industry here at the time.
They’re talking about integrating the casino industry where Black people can’t enter through the front door. Blacks had to go in through the kitchens in order to work or perform in the hotel casinos. The city had world-renowned entertainers coming here – Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Jr. – and they had to enter through the kitchen. And they could not stay at those resorts. They have to live in boarding houses in the Westside, across the tracks.
Negotiations transpired among the mayor, Black leaders, and resort owners. By March 26, 1960, Black Las Vegans had integrated public accommodations — a little earlier than African Americans in most other communities, who didn't experience integration until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
How did the mob treat the Black community in Las Vegas?
As owners of the city’s famous casinos, the mob was focused on running successful businesses. And they didn’t think their customers from Mississippi, the oil fields in Texas, or similar places would want to gamble, go to a show, or have dinner beside a Black person. So, they bought into the myth that Whites would stop coming to Las Vegas and spending their money if Blacks were able to do the same thing.
The mob had no problem with Black entertainers in those places. But they didn’t think that Black customers would be welcomed. Well, they found out that they were wrong. It did not interfere with their business profits at all.
Did integration work? What happened in the immediate aftermath?
Behind the scenes, we have African American women cleaning hotels, joining the Culinary Union, and doing a magnificent job in the sanitation work that made guests comfortable. Even though many of them couldn't enjoy the entertainment found in the city until well after integration took place, these places were pristine and it was because of the work of these Black women.
Late into the 60s, however, we see that there were times that integration didn’t work. Reservations for Black customers were not honored consistently for several years. But everything eventually quieted down, people got accustomed to having their neighbors as someone who didn’t look like them, and things fell into place in the city.
Blacks are later allowed to work in more prestigious roles on the casino floor, such as dealers, cocktail waitresses, and bartenders. Caesar’s Palace opened in 1966 with two Black cocktail waitresses and a few Black bartenders, so we know that Blacks are beginning to work on the Strip in a more open capacity. A consent decree was enacted in 1971 allocating 12% of an array of jobs to Blacks, so hiring begins at a faster pace.
Were there any prominent civil rights marches on the Strip?
Yes, and in addition to the civil rights movement, those marches were coupled with the welfare rights movement through the 60s and into the 70s. This was another national movement for equality, and we know about it so vividly because the team of women behind it are well known. Ruby Duncan, Mary Wesley, Essie Henderson, and many others led marches on the Las Vegas Strip. Black women were integral parts of the civil rights movement nationally and locally.
Were there any nationally famous civil rights figures that visited Southern Nevada during the protests?
Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in Las Vegas in 1964. Not many details are known about the content of his speech, but he spoke at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet, its largest fundraiser.
We talked about integration happening here a little sooner than the rest of the country. What about voting rights?
Alice Key, who worked for the NAACP in the city, would drive around with a folding table in her car and whenever she saw a group of Blacks, she would stop her car, set up her table, and register people to vote.
Voting rights in Las Vegas were not restricted; Blacks voted without any impediments. We hear talk about how difficult it was in some cases in the 40s and 50s to register people to vote, especially in the south. Blacks came to Nevada for jobs. They didn’t come here necessarily to get involved in politics. They wanted better lives for their families and once they were convinced that a better life could come through voting, they started registering.
We’ve heard about the Strip, but what about segregation downtown?
Downtown has been divided by the railroad tracks since Las Vegas’ earliest days. Downtown as we know it is east of the tracks and the Black community was on the west side, and that’s still the historic African American community of Las Vegas.
During the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 30s, downtown grew. Everybody lived downtown, but Whites began to move farther to the east. They wanted Blacks to move to the west side of the tracks and that’s, briefly, how that all came to be.
How have segregated casinos shaped Las Vegas’ identity to this very day?
To this very day when you walk into a casino, we still don’t see the number of African Americans working there in a ‘front-and-center’ capacity - valets, dealers, managers, owners. We don’t see the ownership of Black casinos on the Las Vegas Strip and downtown. We’ve had one since I’ve lived here: Fitzgeralds in 1992. We now have three different Native American-run casinos in the city and no Black-owned casinos.
Does the passing of the CROWN Act signal progress toward equality in Nevada?
This is 2023. Until structural racism in every area of our lives – education, the legal system, housing, medical care, employment – is eliminated, we still have to fight for things like the CROWN Act that allow me to get a job and wear any hairstyle I want - ridiculous!
Schools need to teach students about these topics. About where we came from… What we’ve fought for…What we’re fighting for currently. Because without that history and education, you can count on us to slip backward. The controlling powers will count on us to forget.