“Sin City.” “Glitter Gulch.” “The Gambling Capital of the World.” Whatever you call it, Las Vegas is one of the most famous cities in the world. From scores of star-studded shows to towering mega-room hotels, an incredible gastronomic landscape peppered (no pun intended) with world-renowned A-list chefs, over-the-top shopping and, yes, 24-hour gambling till you drop, Vegas draws over 41 million visitors a year.
It had been approximatemly 30 years since the last time I was there, and in general, all of the glitz and glamour was just not my speed. But when an aunt who lives halfway across the country from me offered an invitation to join her and a friend for a three-day girls’ trip, I decided to tag along.
Choosing to look at this iconic city with fresh eyes, I thought I would look for the softer side of Vegas. But when I started my research, I learned that I was by far not the only one who had this same idea, finding several articles, blog posts and videos offering a variety of things to do beyond gambling, eating, shopping and lounging by the pool.
So I decided to take a few suggestions from the aforementioned, check into a few aspects on my own and take in an iconic Vegas element—Cirque du Soleil. But before we get to all of that, let’s delve into the history of this star of the desert.
VEGAS BEFORE IT WAS “VEGAS”
Although most people are at least somewhat familiar with Las Vegas’ tawdry, gangster-dominated early history, there’s much more to it than that. In fact, you could use the oft-heard analogy of peeling back the layers of an onion. The more you dig into it, the richer the aroma—history, in this case—becomes.
Like most U.S. states, Nevada’s original inhabitants were Native Americans, believed to be from the Washoe, Koso, Walapi, Shoshoni, Panamint, , Paiute and Ute tribes. Early Spanish explorers first came here in the 1800s, followed by the Mormons a few decades later, the city itself began to come into its own around 1905, before it was officially founded in 1911.
The establishment of railroad and water lines are what ultimately helped connect this barren desert landscape with the next closest cities at that time, the latter spurred in great part by the passing of the Boulder Canyon Project Act by Congress in 1928, which employed thousands on what was originally named Boulder Dam and later changed to today’s Hoover Dam.
Despite Vegas’ seemingly freewheeling gambling landscape today, gambling here did have its fits and starts—alternatively legalized then banned—over the years. But once gambling firmly sprouted permanent roots around the 1940s, Las Vegas became a mecca for illegal gambling kingpins and organizations fleeing from L.A. and other cities, bringing with them other nefarious activities that became part of the Las Vegas Strip fabric, with some remaining today.
BLACK LAS VEGAS
Gangsters, madams, gamblers and dancers weren’t the only ones making their marks in early Las Vegas. African-Americans were settling in, joining the annals of history as well.
The first were believed to have arrived shortly after the end of the Civil War, with the first Black community staking its claim, literally, with about 88 acres purchased by J.T. McWilliams in 1904.
Although many well-known Black entertainers were popular headliners on early Las vegas stages, they were pushed out the door after the final curtain call and subjected to the segregationist culture.
Once the Boulder (now Hoover) Dam project started, many more Blacks arrived to find work. About that same time, a Department of Defense magnesium plant project in nearby Henderson opened further employment opportunities, which gave rise to the typical community organizations and resources one would find in any permanent community of any color—churches, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, doctor’s offices, beauty and barber shops and the like.
West Las Vegas soon became where most Blacks lived—some initially pushed there out of other neighborhoods, others arriving later and joining their segregated brethren—until it blossomed into its own thriving enclave with boarding houses, entertainment venues, gambling halls and the like.
Out of this community came the Jackson Street Commercial District, which thrived until the early 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. The catch-22 was that it greatly expanded people of color’s residential and employment options, but enough people left the district that it eventually met its demise.
In between the area’s heyday and its collapse is when acts such as the Will Maston Trio featuring Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Washington, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey and Lena Horne, just to name a few, raised the Vegas entertainment profile and barometer, playing with “their people,” as well as to the Las Vegas Strip masses. Nevertheless, they were still obstructed by the segregationist culture that was more than happy to welcome these entertainers onto their stages to make them money but pushed out the door after the final curtain call and barred from their restaurants, hotels and the like.
Nevertheless, these early African-Americans became iconic symbols of the power and perseverance of faith, wisdom, talent and popularity, leaving indelible marks on the history of the city and state. Many important African-American and other historical Las Vegas sites can be found on the Las Vegas Pioneer Trail, including St. James the Apostle Catholic Church, the Westside, Harrison Boarding House, the Binion House, Las Vegas Mormon Fort, Woodlawn Cemetery and the famous Moulin Rouge, among numerous others.
Another great resource is the Walker African-American Museum, featuring a wide array of historical artifacts such as sports and political items, books, magazines, newspapers clippings, paintings, statues, church histories and more documenting the accomplishments of people of African descent in Vegas and Nevada.
Lysa Allman Baldwin is a freelance writer and the publisher and editor of Amazing Escapades, featuring “adventures for the mind, bod and belly” (www.amazingescapades.com).