Betting on Black: Gambling and Gaming in the ‘Mississippi of the West’

 

El Morocco Casino Keno Board, 1961 (Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections)

 

 

In the famous 1954 Ebony article “Negroes can’t win in Las Vegas,” James Goodrich dubbed Sin City as the “Mississippi of the West” and remarked, ““Negroes cannot place a bet in any of the clubs. … Whenever a Negro is spotted in a downtown gambling hall, it is safe to wager that he is behind a broom, mop or dish cloth.” Casino owners hid their racist hands behind the glitz and glamour of the lights and created an atmosphere where African Americans understood the “code” without ever having to hang any signs. Our article tracks the brief but rich history of racial segregation in gaming and how this was shaped by the emergence of Jim Crow practices in casino policies and overt discrimination in hiring. In this article, we are interrogating and asking who Vegas was built for, what sins is Sin City most invested in, and how the modern gaming industry continues to reflect those historical forms of racism and racist segregation.

In its early years, Las Vegas was a railroad outpost and most Black people came to Vegas as railroad employees. Despite efforts to keep them confined to Block 17, which was located near brothels and taverns, the small number of Black residents lived and worked in an integrated Vegas. There were several successful Black-owned barbershops, boarding houses, and gambling houses that catered to both white and Black patrons.  In 1924, Clarence Ray moved to Vegas from California and worked in two downtown clubs, including one owned by whites, where he ran poker games. He fondly recalled a racial environment where Black and white people socialized together, even recalling, “Whites and blacks danced together and drank together.” The following decade brought two significant changes that deteriorated this racial environment: the influx of workers for the Hoover Dam (1930) and the legalization of gambling (1931). 

Many white Dam workers brought Jim Crow practices with them and casino owners, who were worried about alienating California customers, refused to allow African Americans to patronize the casinos or to stay in their hotels. Mayor Ernie Cragin’s administration pushed for Black removal by threatening to not renew gaming licenses if they refused to relocate. The city quickly moved to reshape the racial environment downtown and confined Black people into a neighborhood known as the Westside.  White landlords followed suit and stopped renting properties to African Americans in any area outside of the Westside and homeowners added restrictive covenants to property deeds. This exile from downtown signaled that Vegas valued white dollars over Black businesses and residents. It set the stage for discriminatory hiring policies, segregated gaming, and limiting Black Las Vegans’ access to wealth. 

After 1931, casinos restricted Black employment to “back of the house” positions, which paid less, and African Americans were not allowed to stay in the hotels. As noted by historian Michael Green, “As a rule of thumb, if an African American went into a casino, they were escorted out.”  Even famous Black entertainers performing on the casinos’ main stages were forced to use back entrances and were not allowed to “stay and play.” Many performers were scared to dispute Jim Crow policies because of the casino’s connections to the mob. Harry Belafonte attempted to get out of his contract at the Thunderbird because he could not stay in the hotel, but the VP of booking informed him, “The only way you’re going to leave Vegas and not play is in a box.” On occasion, Black entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr, Lena Horne, and Nat King Cole could circumvent these policies since they held the economic upper hand. Knowing the casinos valued profit, first and foremost, they leveraged their social capital to make changes to their contracts. However, most Black entertainers were forced off the Strip and had to “stay and play” on the Westside. 

The Westside operated for years without municipal services and the city refused to pave the roads until land values increased. Despite the odds stacked against them, the Westside had several Black-owned businesses, including cafes, clubs, and boarding houses on Jackson Street, which was nicknamed the “Black Strip”. The “Black Strip” became a late-night hotspot where entertainers would come after their performances to gamble and hold informal jam sessions.  These clubs were crucial for the Westside since they provided Black Las Vegans with lucrative employment and a place to participate in gaming.  On May 24, 1955, the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino opened its doors and became the city’s first integrated resort. The casino was extremely popular and was known for its “third show” that started at 2:15am and was geared towards Strip performers. However, its doors were only open for a few months due to mismanagement and pressures from other casinos, but it was a critical moment in cracking the foundations of segregation in the city. 

 The Las Vegas NAACP threatened to march on the Strip several times in order to force casino owners to change their Jim Crow policies. After NAACP President James McMillan threatened a city wide protest, city leaders met with civil rights activists and passed the “Moulin Rouge Agreement” in March of 1960, which “ended” segregation in all Las Vegas casinos and hotels.  The state then passed legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, color, or creed in public accommodations; however, state investigations revealed that the majority of casinos lacked Black employees in higher paying positions.  Armed with this information, McMillan threatened another protest in 1963 if Strip properties did not address discriminatory hiring practices. Casino owners argued that Black dealers lacked the skills needed to run card games and that whites would not patronize their tables. The owners eventually gave a verbal commitment to hire and train more Black employees, but their promises rang hollow. In 1968, NAACP attorney Charles Kellar filed a complaint against a number of casinos, clubs and unions because of continued discriminatory hiring practices that violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This complaint led to the signing of the Consent Decree in 1971 by the majority of the largest casinos, four labor unions, and the Nevada Resort Association. The Consent Decree required the resort industry to allocate 12% of their jobs for Black employees and add training programs to increase the number of Black managers. This moment was an important shift where Black Vegans had access to positions with more visibility on casino floors. Despite these changes, many Black Las Vegans argued that casinos were only hiring them to meet quotas and the highest paying jobs were only available for a token few.   

The casinos’ motivations for finally integrating their workforce were likely based more on profit motivations than a shift in racial relations. In the 1970s, casinos changed hands from mob control to corporations, which prioritized economic bottom lines. Coinciding with this shift, Vegas became the fastest growing metropolitan area in the nation and experienced massive suburban growth.  Upper and middle class Black men and women found ways to move out of the Westside and the city appeared to be more racially progressive. Yet, systemic discrimination remains prevalent within gaming and gambling.  Over the past twenty years, numerous suits were filed against casinos that hold racially hostile work environments, and many are accused of discriminating against nonwhite guests and job applicants. In 2002, the MGM Mirage was accused of discriminating against Black and Latinx applicants and settled a federal suit for nearly $1million dollars. In 2006, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Black employees were subjected to a hostile work environment at the Golden Nugget where they were forced to endure racist and sexist comments from pit bosses, patrons and other floor staff. In more recent years, racist policies are harder to document since casinos rely upon the police to enforce a new Jim Crow. In August of 2018, 34 Black guests at the Rio Hotel and Casino were pulled out of their room by police officers and frisked because of a noise complaint and suspicions that it was a “gang party” even though another party comprising all-white guests took place on the same floor.

We are building a case here: racist housing policies that robbed Black Vegans of wealth and power, racist hiring practices that disallowed Black Vegans true access to the labor market, government divestment in the Historic Westside that denied Black Vegans access to well-funded education, clean water, and paved roads amongst other things, has created a Vegas in which many of Black residents feel that its racist legacy is still prevalent in the contemporary moment. From lawsuits alleging racial profiling in nightclubs and casinos to dress code policies to the Historic Westside’s lack of development and government concern, many Black Vegans are still, in 2022, echoing Goodrich’s claim that Vegas and the Strip is “downright prejudice and really rough on colored people… rigidly Jim Crow by custom,” and that “No other town outside of Dixie has more racial barriers.” Though the city is desegregated, the process toward true equality remains elusive. Many Black Las Vegans argue that the Strip has expanded beyond Black entertainment to accept Black money, but it has yet to accept Black people or Black style. Any racial advancements that now exist in the Valley more so expose that Vegas has only evolved to appear equal in the service of accepting the “green,” but not the Black. 

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Kendra Gage, Javon Johnson, and Tyler D. Parry

Kendra Gage is an Assistant Professor in the Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Javon Johnson is an Associate Professor in the Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies Department at UNLV. Johnson is also the Program Coordinator of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Program at the UNLV. Tyler D. Parry is an Assistant Professor in the Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies Department at the UNLV.

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