When you arrive in the 900 block of West Bonanza Road in Las Vegas’ Historic Westside, all that remains of the Moulin Rouge Hotel & Casino is a sizable empty lot and a number of murals on a nearby building that are starting to peel. The National Register of Historic Sites listing, however, offers a doorway into the city’s Black history.
Being the only integrated hotel and casino in Las Vegas and “the nation’s first big interracial hotel,” the Black-owned and -operated Moulin Rouge debuted in May 1955. At a time when Black people were prohibited from entering casinos unless they were employed there, it extended a welcome mat to visitors and gamblers of colour. Even celebrities with their names in lights on the marquee out front, such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole, had to enter the Strip hotels through back entrances before Moulin Rouge.
The Mob Museum: National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement in Las Vegas’ Shakala Alvaranga, director of public programmes, believes the Moulin Rouge’s influence on the Black community and the part it played in the city’s desegregation cannot be overstated. “A Night at the Moulin Rouge,” an Alvaranga production that recently sold out, included dancer Anna Bailey, Manny Davis, Sammy Davis Jr.’s adopted son, and Katie Duncan, a former employee of the actual Moulin Rouge.
A brief historical overview
As the train connecting Los Angeles and Salt Lake City opened in 1905, Las Vegas became a legally recognised city. According to Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries, the community didn’t start to become segregated until the late 1920s. White has spoken with hundreds of persons who were alive during those periods as one of the five founders of the Las Vegas Black History Society Inc.
She relates that in 1925, the Ku Klux Klan marched down Fremont Street. “The railroads, which are physically across the tracks, decided where Negroes would dwell.” Once-vibrant Black businesses in the downtown area had their licences withdrawn and were consequently compelled to close their doors and relocate to the west side of the community.
White continues, “Systemic racism was at play. Before 1968, Negroes were not eligible for FHA loans. We were unable to amass the money that White people could. Here, there weren’t any housing complexes of the kind that were remaking communities throughout the city.
Businesses along Jackson Avenue, commonly referred to as the “Black Strip,” were able to survive for a while. Things changed in 1960 when a gathering of local Black leaders, hotel owners, and city and state authorities took place at the Moulin Rouge, which was then closed. All Strip casinos will be desegregated, according to an agreement.
According to White, “What happened back then was what happened all around America.” Middle-class Blacks relocated from the less affluent area of the town to better their families’ lives. The west side of Las Vegas experienced economic hardship when you combine increased unemployment, the crack epidemic, and a lack of civic support and leadership.
The Historic Urban Neighborhood Design Reconstruction Plan (The HUNDRED), which was created in 2016 to encourage community-led investment in the Historic Westside, took decades to design.
Crosby, who was raised in this area, has worked for the city’s planning department as a geographic information system specialist and special projects coordinator. For the past six years, Crosby has been gathering and studying the kinds of data that The HUNDRED needs in order to succeed as it changes.
Crosby introduced Historic Westside Tours in January 2023, providing two 90-minute tour experiences that transport guests around the neighbourhood and the city centre in a mini-bus. The other explores the Pioneer Trail and Las Vegas’ Native American heritage. One itinerary follows Black history and development. The tour features historic buildings, such as the first Westside school and the Harrison House, a low-slung cottage at 1001 F Street, as well as parks and green areas that are being transformed into urban farms and communal spaces, street art murals, and parks.
Genevieve Harrison welcomed guests and separated couples into her house in 1942 after segregation rules prevented them from staying in hotels on the Strip. There, entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, and Nat King Cole slept. There is a room named after Davis that is decorated with pictures and souvenirs because he was such a frequent visitor.
You’ll run upon the Harrison House’s owner, Katie Duncan, a former employee of the Moulin Rouge. In order to preserve the Harrison House’s significance in Las Vegas’ Black heritage, Duncan purchased it in the early 2000s.
She tells guests, “We were on page 55 of the Green Book. Published between 1936 and 1967, The Negro Travelers’ Green Book was a directory of important services that allowed Black families and entrepreneurs to travel in segregated America somewhat safely.
Other locations on the Historic Westside Tour are aspirational, such as James Gay III Park, which bears the name of the late Black community leader who made a significant contribution to the Strip’s integration. A $500,000 donation from MGM Resorts International is helping to support the project to set up the park for urban vertical farming in order to supply the area with fresh fruit.
Together with a Moulin Rouge entertainment area and a restaurant run by Chef Jeff Henderson, the creator of TheChef Jeff Project, there is also an affordable housing component in the works. The community’s underserved and system-impacted men and women can receive training in culinary, hospitality, and life skills through Henderson’s nonprofit organisation.
A contract to create a master plan for an African American Museum and Cultural Center on the Historic Westside was approved by the Las Vegas City Council in 2022. According to Crosby, this is the neighbourhood where she grew up, and the future seems more promising.
As a young Black mother and woman, she says, “my aim is to look to the future, to look ahead to where we are headed next.”
additional images, noises
The original Moulin Rouge sign in all its pink glory is among the spectacular vintage neon signs that can be found in the Neon Museum in downtown. You may schedule a tour of this outdoor destination. The finest times to enjoy the glitz of Las Vegas are at dusk and in the evening.
Don’t miss Cirque du Soleil’s Crazy Apple at the New York New York Hotel Casino. This dynamic magic, fantasy, and dance spectacle features a predominantly Black ensemble, and Eddie Cole, whose great uncle was Nat King Cole, is in charge of the music. Cole, who goes by the stage name “Xharlie Black” in this Vegas production, has also toured and played drums for famed rap artist Nas.
Eat at BIPOC-owned establishments
Chef Natalie Young, who overcame a life of drug addiction and loss to become an award-winning chef and successful restaurateur, is the creator of Eat. Everything is nice and fresh here, but we recommend the shrimp and grits.
Southern soul food is served at Gritz Café on the Historic Westside, featuring chicken-fried steak and catfish po’ boys. For dessert, choose sweet potato pie. Aiming to be “the best Southern-style restaurant that provides Black excellence in the form of amazing food and outstanding customer service,” Gritz is owned by Trina Jiles, the first Black woman to serve as a firefighter in Clark County.