How Josephine Baker Challenged Racism in Las Vegas

tags: racism, Black History, Las Vegas, Josephine Baker, entertainment

Claytee D. White is the inaugural director of the Oral History Research Center for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries. She collects the history of Las Vegas and the surrounding area by gathering memories of events and experiences from longtime residents. Her projects include early health care in the city, history of the John S. Park Neighborhood, The Boyer Early Las Vegas Oral History Project, and a study of musicians who played with some of the greats in the entertainment field.

By the mid-twentieth century, Las Vegas’ reputation as the “Mississippi of the West” was well-earned. As Black Americans from the South traveled west during the Great Migration, thousands of them settled within the growing desert oasis seeking higher-paying jobs and a life free of Jim Crow policies. However, white developers and realtors throughout the valley cemented policies of residential segregation, and resort owners ensured that Black employees remained in the “back of the house” in positions that yielded the lowest pay, being neither seen nor heard by the white patrons. Even though Black Las Vegans, many of whom lived as sharecroppers in the rural South, secured higher wages through casino employment, such restrictions on their mobility ensured life within Las Vegas mirrored the social tiers of Jim Crow society as it attempted to disempower and immobilize Black American protests.

Desegregation would not come to Las Vegas until the “Moulin Rouge Agreement” of March 25, 1960, that integrated public accommodations. In popular histories, the agreement is sometimes portrayed as a snap decision that led to full-fledged equality overnight. However, the city’s desegregation was a multi-decade effort that included many key events, such as the protest by the local NAACP branch for jobs at the Hoover Dam in 1931; the Las Vegas Colored Progressive Club’s fight for the Black community to resettle west of the railroad tracks in the early 1930s; and the hiring of the first black teacher by the school district in 1946.  And in the early 1950s a noteworthy Black entertainer residing in Paris, France made a decision that not only reverberated across the United States, but it also started to crack the foundations of racism that consumed this small resort city located in the Mojave Desert. In 1951, Josephine Baker, having recently completed her work in the French Underground of World War II, decided to tour the United States. In 1952 she came to the Last Frontier Hotel located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Though unknown at the time, her appearance showcased the intersection of the financial profits, racism, world class entertainment, and desegregation movements embedded within the city’s socio-political structure. 

Baker’s challenge to racism in Las Vegas is known by those who have studied her history, but given the brevity of her stay there is a tendency to generalize its impact. One website, for instance, credits her with “integrating Las Vegas nightclubs.” But this assertion is both overly romantic and far too broad for understanding her actual impact in the long term. While it is true that Baker integrated one club for the few days of her engagement, it was not a permanent state of affairs for the Las Vegas casino industry. However, the maneuvers she made were rather unprecedented at that point in the city’s history, and it can best be described as a spinning dance step that pirouetted over the years. Baker’s initial impressions of the city and her immediate commitment to uplifting its Black community are documented in the oral memories of Black Las Vegas, and these sources are crucial for understanding how Josephine Baker cracked the foundations of the color line and helped to further galvanize Black Las Vegans to push for structural change. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives