As Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black Americans, is celebrated June 19, it’s a good time to recall the evolution of race relations in the Silver State.
Most people working in casinos today mercifully never knew the days when gaming was rooted in blatant segregation and Jim Crow prohibitions. That history is largely also Nevada’s, since the state held a national monopoly on legalized betting from 1931 until 1976. And while we can now say with pride that our industry has made great strides toward racial equality, we should also be aware of our shameful history and let it act as a reminder that there is still some work to be done.
At first, Nevada didn’t seem destined to earn the title “Mississippi of the West,” but the moniker was later proven to be well-deserved. In the beginning, neither the early Mormon settlers of the late 1840s nor the miners that followed in the 1850s permitted slavery. In fact, the Silver State, while still a territory, played a key role in the Union’s victory in the Civil War by providing gold and silver to fund the war effort. For Lincoln, Nevada’s statehood in 1864 gave the president two more Union votes in the Senate. That happened even though our population at the time was far below the requirement set for statehood.
Nevada, like much of the frontier west, focused its xenophobia on the Chinese, despite their critical role in the success of the Comstock mines of Virginia City and the transcontinental railroad they hammered through the Sierra. There were even some early signs that the state might be truly progressive when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 1872 that excluding African Americans from public schools was unconstitutional. But, in a harbinger of things to come, the same ruling also declared that Nevada schools could be segregated by race.
As statues of Confederate generals are being removed across the country, some of Nevada’s most prominent citizens are also coming under scrutiny. Pat McCarren, long the namesake of the Las Vegas airport, is honored as one of two Nevada statues in the U.S. Capitol building. But the state’s Democratic Congressional delegation has asked the governor to recommend its removal.
“While Sen. McCarran fought for workers’ rights and sponsored legislation that helped shape the modern air travel industry, his dark legacy of virulent racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia have no place representing Nevada, especially in the United States Capitol,” says the letter, signed by Democratic Reps. Dina Titus, Steven Horsford and Susie Lee and Democratic Senators Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto.
In December, Las Vegas Airport officially changed its name to Harry Reid International Airport, 73 years after being named for McCarran.
Northern Nevada – where, incidentally, the Truckee Meadows’ ring road is named for McCarran — hasn’t escaped the retrospective either.
Senator Francis G. Newlands has both a prominent neighborhood and a park named in his honor. His 1905 Newlands Reclamation Project is credited with turning 57,000 acres of desert into productive farmland in the Fernley and Fallon areas. But critics are now calling for removal of his name from the Reno park. A letter to the Reno Gazette Journal cited his history as “an avowed white supremacist, a mean-spirited and virulent racist even by the standards of the era in which he lived.” (Newlands lived from 1846 to 1917.)
But it was the state’s casinos, more than its senators, that earned the headline “Negros can’t win in Las Vegas” in the March 1954 edition of Ebony magazine. “The Negro finds little welcome anywhere,” author James Goodrich wrote. “He is barred from practically every place whites go for entertainment or services. He cannot live outside a segregated, slum-like community (known then as the Westside). He is relegated to the most menial jobs. For the Negro, Vegas is as bad as towns come… Negros rate no better than second-class citizenship there.”
Things didn’t much improve until African-American activists like the Las Vegas dentist James McMillan threatened to march on the Strip for integration. It took a lot of courage to continue the fight. “They told me to stop what I was doing,” McMillan said, “or they would drop me in Lake Mead.” Due to his and others’ determined efforts, Strip hotel owners grudgingly opened their businesses to black customers on March 26, 1960.
Buddy Frank is a retired local journalist and casino executive. He’s lived in the area since 1957, but his wife, who was born and raised in the Carson Valley, still considers him a “California newcomer.”