The lights of the Las Vegas Strip invite gamers and partiers from all walks of life. But like the rest of the country, Las Vegas wasn’t always so welcoming.
It wasn’t until 1955 that African Americans were able to take part in the lure of Las Vegas. That’s when the Moulin Rouge opened its doors. It was the first integrated hotel and casino in the city.
The Las Vegas Strip — it’s the hallmark of the valley — drawing in millions of people from all across the globe each year but it didn’t always look like it does.
Before 1960, Strip casinos and hotels were considered “off limits” to blacks. There were few exceptions. Some properties hired black people, but that was for “back-of-the-house” jobs. Black entertainers were often invited to perform, but that was it.
Here’s how Sammy Davis Jr. once put it, “In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off the stage, we were colored again. The other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage.”
For many, Las Vegas came to be known as the “Mississippi of the West” because of its harsh segregation practices. But eventually something had to give, and it did.
“The Moulin Rouge is really quite interesting,” said local filmmaker Stan Armstrong. “It was only open for six months and it’s got this great mystery that it was open so much longer. Three hotels opened in 1955, including the Moulin Rouge, so, it’s interesting to see what this town was like during that time. It was a time of great percolation. You know you had, you still had Jim Crow laws in Vegas, but yet you had a time in Las Vegas where people were coming here from a post-World War II generation and, God, I mean just living during that time, 1955, when the Moulin Rouge was open. It must have been quite exciting.”
“Not only Nat King Cole, but Sammy Davis Junior, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, they would all come to the Moulin Rouge and not only come there, they would bring their white entertainer friends like Sammy Davis Junior and Frank Sinatra. You know and all those guys,” Armstrong said. “You know it just must have been really magical, for me, to me it was like, it was like Harlem in the middle of the desert.”
The Moulin Rouge was the first racially integrated casino in the United States, located in Las Vegas’ historic Westside. People called it the “six month sensation” as it was only open for a short time, but had an empowering effect on the civil rights movement years after bankruptcy forced its doors to close.
“Nineteen-sixty was just an interesting year and you had these great guys, these idealists like Bob Bailey and Charles Keller who got together and, you know, with other great men of their times and that’s where the Moulin Rouge agreement started. And that’s where the Moulin Rouge agreement started, at the Moulin Rouge in 1960,” Armstrong said. “The Moulin Rouge really played its part in history here. Not only was it the first interracial hotel and casino, but it was a place that people got together and formed an alliance to get on the Las Vegas Strip.”
After shutting down in Nov. 1955, the Moulin Rouge was boarded up for decades and severely damaged in 2003 when a blaze ripped through the cultural landmark leaving the iconic sign untouched. It went to the Neon museum out of harm’s way, but the property itself was the victim of several more fires before city leaders decided to tear down what was left in 2010.
Over the years, community leaders have pushed to restore the historic landmark. Some efforts, more promising than others, but the lot remains undeveloped. Some look at it and see a future, while others embrace it as the past.
“We should learn about the Moulin Rouge and we should know about the historical Westside and move on and tell our kids,” Armstrong said. “It’s interesting now when I go on the Strip and I see all kids of different nationalities and cultures playing together and being together, but not knowing the sacrifice that people like my mom and dad had to make, you know, for them to have this freedom today.”