Building its reputation upon tourism, gaming, and a constant search to innovate the entertainment industry, visitors to Las Vegas can be forgiven for assuming it is a city devoid of community or a cultural heritage. First commissioned in 1905 as a railroad town that linked Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, most Americans only know Las Vegas’ reputation as “Sin City,” a place renowned for its commitment to legalized vice. Alongside significant investments from the Italian-American Mafia and various multi-millionaires, it became a place unlike any other in the United States, and arguably the world. Eventually, this once small and remarkably hot desert town morphed into North America’s fastest growing city throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century. It has received migrants from throughout the world seeking high-paying positions to meet the needs of its ever-expanding tourist industry.
Considering that Vegas receives more than 3 million visitors each month, for many it holds a reputation as a transient city where the population is constantly in motion. Many will come, but few will stay for very long. In other words, one might assume that few people have planted roots in Las Vegas, nor would one think that communities throughout the valley have molded, or been molded by, its unique 100+ year evolution. Carrying a reputation based upon the superficial, where many believe the only color that matters here is “green,” visitors rarely engage with the inequities that persist throughout Las Vegas and its neighboring municipalities. Since it is now one of the nation’s most diverse cities, many assume that its cosmopolitanism has produced a racial utopia. Though its problems with policing and wealth inequality are hiding in plain sight, the tourism industry has effectively redirected visitors toward the city’s glamorous landscape and has been reluctant to spotlight the racist, classist, and misogynistic events that fill its history. Consequently, it is easy to assume that Las Vegas developed apart from the overt structural racism and discrimination associated with other areas of the country.
But this assumption greatly misrepresents the omnipresent Jim Crow-style social conditions that permeated the city as its Black population grew throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. It also obscures how community was formed among African American migrants who comprised the city’s largest non-white population throughout most of the twentieth century. Escaping the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration, Black southerners settled in Las Vegas seeking economic opportunity and to escape the segregationist barriers that stalled their social and political progress in places like Louisiana and Arkansas. While many migrants found economic opportunities vastly superior to the sharecropping positions they left behind, they still confronted similar forms of the structural racism they had hoped to escape, including residential segregation that confined them to an underdeveloped area called the “Westside;” an inability to enter properties on the Strip or intermingle with white people at major resorts and casinos; and they were relegated to the lowest-paying, “back-of-the-house” positions at the major resorts. This racial marginalization was so intense that African Americans nicknamed Las Vegas the “Mississippi of the West” to denote its unique reputation as a western city invested in maintaining the color line.
However, there is another side to this history, one that documents the resilience of the Black community and the leaders who refused to accept second-class status in a city they helped to build. African American men and women established their own business district on “Jackson Avenue,” sometimes nicknamed “the Black Strip” in the Westside, and they used protests to pressure city officials to enact social change. Oftentimes, local activists linked arms with visiting Black celebrities who joined their fight and provided the necessary social capital to pressure city officials and crack the foundations of Jim Crow politics. In seeking to further uncover this rich history, this forum on “Black Las Vegas” provides readers an introduction to the remarkable experiences of Black Las Vegans, and how this community challenged white supremacist structures to produce wide-ranging social change and demolish the segregationist barriers that contained the population geographically, financially, and politically. In the essays that follow, scholars from throughout southern Nevada analyze wide-ranging historical records that show how the Black community responded to racism and marginalization.
Some of these essays are case studies on certain figures who confronted a racially-segregated Las Vegas before the 1960s, such as the international star Josephine Baker who performed in Las Vegas for a brief moment in the mid-twentieth century, as well as Anna Bailey, a Black showgirl whose long life and career provides a window toward understanding how a performer of color navigated the complexities of race and racism in a city based upon entertainment and consumerism. Other pieces in this forum examine the legacies of structural racism within Las Vegas. By analyzing institutional violence at all levels of society, including police, private industries, and the state government, the essays collectively show how African Americans were impacted by, and how they contended against, this city’s long legacy of anti-Blackness.
We hope this forum inspires its readers to visualize Las Vegas as a locality that transcends its myopic image as simply a gaming and entertainment juggernaut. It is important to note that, had Black Americans not fought to make it a more just and equitable place, white business owners and officials in the state and city governments would have continued to mandate segregation well past the 1960s. African Americans forced the city to become better, and they paved the way for subsequent migrants who similarly came to Las Vegas seeking greater economic opportunity. Though these efforts are too often uncredited, it is important that the narratives of Black Las Vegans are included when discussing the national Civil Rights movement and the important connections they held to internationally-renowned Black celebrities who joined their cause. We hope these five essays spark an interest among those seeking to uncover local histories and analyze how these struggles hold an immeasurable impact for both the activists and the generations that follow. We also hope tourists will consider visiting areas outside the main city center, specifically the “Historic Westside,” where visitors can learn more about the resilience of Black Las Vegans and engage with the spaces that birthed its dynamic civil rights movement.
Welcome to “Black Las Vegas!”permission.