How Josephine Baker Challenged Las Vegas Racism

Fabulous Las Vegas Magazine, April 26, 1952. Volume 4, Number 2 (Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections)

By the mid-twentieth century, Las Vegas’ reputation as the “Mississippi of the West” was well-earned. As Black Americans from the South traveled west during the Great Migration, thousands of them settled within the growing desert oasis seeking higher-paying jobs and a life free of Jim Crow policies. However, white developers and realtors throughout the valley cemented policies of residential segregation, and resort owners ensured that Black employees remained in the “back of the house” in positions that yielded the lowest pay, being neither seen nor heard by the white patrons. Even though Black Las Vegans, many of whom lived as sharecroppers in the rural South, secured higher wages through casino employment, such restrictions on their mobility ensured life within Las Vegas mirrored the social tiers of Jim Crow society as it attempted to disempower and immobilize Black American protests.

Desegregation would not come to Las Vegas until the “Moulin Rouge Agreement” of March 25, 1960, that integrated public accommodations. In popular histories, the agreement is sometimes portrayed as a snap decision that led to full-fledged equality overnight. However, the city’s desegregation was a multi-decade effort that included many key events, such as the protest by the local NAACP branch for jobs at the Hoover Dam in 1931; the Las Vegas Colored Progressive Club’s fight for the Black community to resettle west of the railroad tracks in the early 1930s; and the hiring of the first black teacher by the school district in 1946.  And in the early 1950s a noteworthy Black entertainer residing in Paris, France made a decision that not only reverberated across the United States, but it also started to crack the foundations of racism that consumed this small resort city located in the Mojave Desert. In 1951, Josephine Baker, having recently completed her work in the French Underground of World War II, decided to tour the United States. In 1952 she came to the Last Frontier Hotel located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Though unknown at the time, her appearance showcased the intersection of the financial profits, racism, world class entertainment, and desegregation movements embedded within the city’s socio-political structure. 

Baker’s challenge to racism in Las Vegas is known by those who have studied her history, but given the brevity of her stay there is a tendency to generalize its impact. One website, for instance, credits her with “integrating Las Vegas nightclubs.” But this assertion is both overly romantic and far too broad for understanding her actual impact in the long term. While it is true that Baker integrated one club for the few days of her engagement, it was not a permanent state of affairs for the Las Vegas casino industry. However, the maneuvers she made were rather unprecedented at that point in the city’s history, and it can best be described as a spinning dance step that pirouetted over the years. Baker’s initial impressions of the city and her immediate commitment to uplifting its Black community are documented in the oral memories of Black Las Vegas, and these sources are crucial for understanding how Josephine Baker cracked the foundations of the color line and helped to further galvanize Black Las Vegans to push for structural change. 

According to J. David Hoggard, a Black man who served as Executive Director of Clark County’s Economic Opportunity Board, Josephine Baker made an immediate impact:

[She] came into town and took a cab over to West Las Vegas and stopped at the corner of Jackson and D Streets. She entered the liquor store at that corner owned by Mr. and Mrs. Andy Bruno and asked if they knew how she could get in touch with the president of the local NAACP and where could she find a good beauty parlor.” 

Both questions were answered and then directed to Woodrow Wilson, president of the local NAACP. Upon their first meeting, Wilson recalled that Baker told him that “she had arranged tables to be reserved for her at every show.  She needed his assistance in filling those tables with blacks each night of her engagement. Of course, we agreed.”  Hoggard recalled the events of the first evening that Baker performed, noting that he, Wilson and a few other Black Americans were in attendance, a practice that was strictly prohibited at Strip properties. Baker told the group beforehand to notify her if they experienced any issues at the entrance and she would intervene. Unsurprisingly, they were stopped at the door and the manager defiantly told them they could not enter and would be arrested if they did not leave the premises. The group refused to move, and Woodrow Wilson left to use the telephone and inform Baker of the situation. According to Hoggard, it only took “a couple of minutes [before] Josephine Baker showed up, reminded them of the clause in her contract, and threatened not to perform if we were not seated. We had no more trouble.”

Baker was well-aware of Las Vegas racism, as noted by the “clause” in her contract that stipulated certain liberties not often given to Black Americans in the city, as even Black celebrities faced discrimination within the same venues that they performed. She challenged these segregationist policies by demanding tables for her guests, be they white or Black, and by staying in a cottage on the premises of the hotel casino, a practice that was taboo within the city’s tradition. Baker’s behavior in Las Vegas may not be surprising, as she held a well-documented commitment to civil rights activism, but it is important to note that up to that point few celebrities had challenged Las Vegas segregation quite like she had. 

Baker approached Las Vegas with her usual bravado and demanded tables in the front portion of the showroom for her guests. Lubertha Johnson, an activist and member of the NAACP, remembered attending the event with an interracial group of NAACP members on the second night when the hotel attempted to renege on the contract, asserting they would not honor her request a second time. Baker told the group to not engage with the doormen, but to seek her out at any hint of hostility. The moment the group found trouble at the entrance, they located Baker and she led them “right through where people were being served.” Johnson continued, “They didn’t know what to do, because Miss Baker was in front. They let us go in but they wouldn’t serve us. Miss Baker went out on the stage, and she just sat there. She said, ‘Now, I’m not going to entertain. You just stay where you are until something happens. I’m going to sit right here till they make up their minds what they want to do.’  Finally, they served us.”

Woodrow Wilson also reminisced about this event, calling it “an unusual situation” in seeing Baker use her status to force the hotel to honor the contract. The black groups that he helped to recruit for Mrs. Baker received special treatment traditionally reserved for the white and wealthy. In the same testimony, Wilson remembered that he and other Black customers were often refused entry to casinos, but Josephine Baker provided them a different vision for the future. Not only could they see a show on the Strip, they could be seated with the main attraction and receive the same dignity as white patrons. And even if only a few received this treatment during the duration of her short stay, the broader Black American community felt proud and empowered through this unprecedented challenge to structural barriers. 

In a 24-hour city based upon the consumption of entertainment and the primacy of star power, Josephine Baker graced its stage and used her platform to challenge segregation and discrimination. She could have arrived in the city, performed, received payment, and left. But she chose a higher path, one that expressed commitment to the elevation of her people. Even if her time in Las Vegas was fleeting, her impact remained everlasting by those who witnessed it. Las Vegas inhabitants are known to live by the clock of the casino, working, eating, and sleeping according to the rhythm of the city that pulsated from the shuffle of the cards and the roll of the dice. African Americans were expected to play their position as a community neither “seen” nor “heard,” completely immobilized, silenced, and invisible. For just a few hours, Josephine Baker danced above that rhythm and invited Black Las Vegans to join her, ensuring they would never again accept anything less.

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Claytee White

Claytee D. White is the inaugural director of the Oral History Research Center for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries. She collects the history of Las Vegas and the surrounding area by gathering memories of events and experiences from longtime residents. Her projects include early health care in the city, history of the John S. Park Neighborhood, The Boyer Early Las Vegas Oral History Project, and a study of musicians who played with some of the greats in the entertainment field.