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Black history alive and well in Las Vegas

Sammy Davis Performs on Strip LVNB.jpg

February is Black History Month, and a look at Southern Nevada's Past gives you some idea of how we got to where are today.

That includes segregationist housing and policies dating back to the beginnings of Las Vegas when most of the African-American population lived in McWilliams townsite, north of present-day U.S.95 and west of present-day I-15.

"The streets weren’t paved," longtime resident Erma O'Neal told News-3 in 1992. "We had nothing but hard gravel rocks. The city department, they would take these water trucks and they would hose the street down to hold the gravel down."

"Back in the early days we called this Old Town," explained another long-timer, Clarence Ray. "This is where the people that settled. McWilliams, who was a surveyor—I guess you’d call him some type of engineer—they named this after him."

Back in the 1950s, Las Vegas had unofficially been nicknamed the "Mississippi of the West." Like many cities in the South, there was a familiar geographic feature.

"Anyone will tell you, the railroad tracks that run behind the Union Plaza and along A street was the divider between the black part of town and the white part of town," said News 3's Katie Harris while gesturing to the west and then the east. "The fact is, on this side, you were living in the black community. On that side, it was for whites."

Of course, residents could walk or drive across the tracks, but to go where?

"I've talked to a lot of the older people, and I know for a fact they were not welcome on the Las Vegas strip or downtown hotels," Katherine Duncan told News-3 in 2012.

As President of the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce, she is quite familiar with the history of the valley's famously first integrated resort, on Bonanza.

“However, before the Moulin Rouge which opened in 1955, Las Vegas had a very vibrant history with African Americans," elaborated Duncan. "Sammy Davis Junior had performed in Las Vegas long before Moulin Rouge was built."

But the Strip was still white customers only. In 1960, a civil rights demonstration was discussed, starting on what was then being called the "West Side", and heading down Las Vegas Boulevard.

"In so many ways, people were fearful that if the march had gone off as planned, that it would hurt the city," UNLV Black Studies Professor Roosevelt Fitzgerald told News-3 in 1982. "And tensions were running pretty high."

Local NAACP President James McMillan kept government officials aware of what was being discussed.

"They finally made a decision to say 'Yeah, well we might as well integrate'," McMillan recalled in 1980. "I guess what they thought at the time that someone was trying to cut into their action, or get into the gambling other than the people that were in gambling at that time."

The concerned parties gathered on March 26, 1960.

"And that meeting happened at Moulin Rouge, which is why it was so clear in my mind," said Duncan. "Because it was called the Moulin Rouge agreement."

"But they finally had meetings and negotiation with [Las Vegas Sun Publisher] Mr. [Hank] Greenspun and the Governor Grant Sawyer and the Mayor at that time Oran Gragson and the NAACP Executive Committee," said McMillan. "They finally thrashed it out and said 'OK, we will stop discriminating and let you into the hotel'."

While it was a critical moment connecting the West Side with the Strip in a positive way, there was also a downside.

"In 1960, we de-segregated, but we never made an attempt to integrate," explained Duncan. "And so desegregation has brought about a major decline in the African-American neighborhood. And our role now is to economically integrate the neighborhood, so that anyone would be clamoring to live there. It could be beautiful."

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