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‘Learning about ourselves’: Black history in Southern Nevada

A showgirl relaxes in front of the pool at the Moulin Rouge in 1955. COURTESY UNLV SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.
A showgirl relaxes in front of the pool at the Moulin Rouge in 1955. COURTESY UNLV SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.

You won’t find black history preserved in the architecture of the Westside. Time has taken down most of the monuments to the minority community that lived in the neighborhood during segregation.

The Moulin Rouge burned down twice. Fortunately, its sign survived and sits in safekeeping at the Neon Museum. The old casino is now a crater. The old hotels and casinos on Jackson Avenue have been converted to churches or motorcycle clubs — or just left empty, as dilapidated testaments to the area’s economic decline.

But who needs artifacts when you have living, breathing people? The city of Las Vegas and its African-American community are young enough to speak for themselves. The first stage of an ambitious history project undertaken by UNLV, in conjunction with the Las Vegas-Clark County and Henderson libraries and just about every other government and civic organization in the valley, rounded up several important African-American figures for a series of roundtable discussions. Ultimately, videos of these conversations will be one of many elements of a wide-ranging online chronicle of the black experience in Las Vegas. The website will also include historical documents, photographs and stories from black professionals who broke the color barriers in medicine, law and education.

In the first roundtable talk, Lucille Bryant described how she came from Tallulah, La., in 1953, and promptly went from making $5 a week cleaning houses to $8 a day working in hotels.

“When she told me what I was making … the first thing I did was get on my knees on that hotel bed and lift my hands to heaven and gave God thanks,” Bryant said. “I wrote back home and said, ‘Everybody, come on out here. They gone crazy!’”

In a way, Bryant’s story is not much different from that of thousands of other opportunists who flocked to jobs in the Las Vegas casinos. She and her family, and all of her African-American neighbors might have had good jobs, but that didn’t mean they found paradise in the Mojave Desert. Jim Crow existed out here as well, in laws that prevented blacks from eating or staying in casinos on the Strip or in downtown Las Vegas.

It was “The Mississippi of the West,” with higher paychecks and fewer Klansmen. The community grew large and powerful enough to overturn segregation in 1960. Now, African-Americans hold powerful positions in state and municipal governments and in casinos. Congressional candidate Steven Horsford grew up in the Westside. Two years ago he made history when he became the first African-American majority leader in the state Senate.

The history project will chart the course of the African-American community. Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV, has been interested in the area’s African-American history since graduate school. She did her thesis on it. In 2011, she heard that writer-activist Trish Geran wanted to produce a play on the subject for Vegas PBS. The two women got together and decided to do one better: compile a comprehensive history of the community through oral history, panel discussions and documentary research.

White is gathering stories from African-Americans; she is also rounding up the resources that already exist at the libraries, historical foundations, professional organizations and other groups. The goal is to create a single portal to access all the available information about African-Americans in the Las Vegas Valley.

“The overall goal of this is to find out where everything is,” White said.

She doesn’t just mean the things that already exist in library vaults. She wants every photo album, scrapbook and school yearbook from the community.

Why? Because the history of the African-American community hasn’t been as well documented as others. We have a Mob Museum, but no resource for anyone who wants to know about minority communities.

“Communities that are nonwhite communities are left out of history,” White said.

African-Americans lived all over the community, not just in the Westside. Henderson, which had a magnesium plant that attracted a lot of workers from the South — black and white — had its own historically black neighborhoods.

The history of black culture doesn’t begin and end with the Westside and the Moulin Rouge, or with Sammy Davis, Redd Foxx or the Town Tavern. Thousands of pioneers made the hard journey from the Deep South to Southern Nevada in search of a better life. Their stories will also be available through the UNLV project.

White expects the website to launch in one-and-a-half years; she and her collaborators will add to it for at least another three years after that. Then she wants to document other minority communities. Next, she wants to document the Hispanic and Asian experiences, creating online portals similar to the one she’s developing for the current project. White wants to shed light on the other parts of our history, not just the mobsters with their Tommy guns and car bombs.

“It’s about learning more about ourselves,” she said. “We don’t know Las Vegas yet until we know all of its components.”