Segregation in Neon

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I haven’t posted in like a year because I’ve been living this rich, full, super-busy life. By “rich,” I mean we’re always broke. By “full,” I mean I have three kids who always want something. And by “super-busy,” I mean that those Facebook games are demanding, y’all.

I realized the other day that we’re living on borrowed Vegas time. We were supposed to leave a year ago. We got an extension so DivaTeen could graduate (she did, today), and we are supposed to be leaving for the great unknown this fall. We’re hoping we can stay here for a bit longer, but nothing is certain. And there is a lot that I want to get done while we’re still here. So I’ve got a couple of trips planned and I’m gonna be blogging about them for my entire 2 or 3 readers.

While Diva Teen was applying for scholarships, she had the opportunity to do some community service. We prefer to do things for organizations that benefit local people and don’t get a lot of money or funding elsewhere. We try to stick to smaller, community-based organizations. She does a lot of volunteer work already, but we aren’t great about keeping track of what we do. And the scholarship wanted like actual records and signed sheets and other unreasonable, boring shit. So, we reached out to a couple of friends in the community and were directed to a group called the Rights Society that was working on a community garden project. She also did stuff with Food Not Bombs, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and Nevada Desert Experience, but I wanna talk about the stuff she did for Rights Society today.

The Rights Society is a local Human Rights group that works on a variety of projects here in Vegas. They’ve worked with voter education, criminal justice reform, mental health issues, food distribution, and direct action, just to name a few. I peeped their website and they do SO MUCH STUFF. The folks we met were really great, too, so if you haven’t checked them out yet, do so immediately. They have a website, and they’re also on Facebook.

 

We spent two days at the garden learning how to lay irrigation pipe and filling up planter boxes with soil. It was a lot of fun, and I feel like we learned a skill that will be helpful in the future. The guy who taught us how to lay pipe could probably have done it a thousand times faster without our “help” but he was really patient and just super freaking awesome. Biggest thanks to everyone we met there!

The place where the community garden was being installed was Harrison House in Historic West Las Vegas. In its heyday, Harrison House was a boarding house for Black entertainers during the 1940’s and 1950’s. At this time, casinos on the Las Vegas strip drew high-profile Black performers, such as Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, and Sammy Davis Junior. However, the strip was segregated, and Black performers were not allowed to stay on strip properties. After they finished their performances, they would come to the Westside, relax at one of the Black clubs and stay in boarding houses such as Harrison House. Fun Fact: Las Vegas was referred to as the “Mississippi of the West” because of segregation. Which is not a fun fact at all. It’s a super-shitty fact that’s all-too-common in our country’s racist history.

 

In June of 1955, the Moulin Rouge casino opened in the Westside. Its hotel was the first integrated hotel in Las Vegas. It was extremely popular and drew many notable performers, both Black and white. Unfortunately, the owners filed for bankruptcy after about six months. The Las Vegas strip, itself,  remained segregated until 1960, when widespread threats of protest forced hotel owners, city officials, Black civic leaders, and state politicians to meet together to discuss desegregating the properties. In March 1960, the then-closed Moulin Rouge casino was the site of the Moulin Rouge Accord, which ended segregation on the strip.

There are tons of great articles on the Moulin Rouge Casino. Check out this one from Smithsonian, this one from LasVegasNow, and this one from the National Parks Service.

Another fun fact (this one is actually fun): The Moulin Rouge sign was designed by Betty Willis, a designer who worked for Western Neon. During her time there, she also designed another famous sign, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign that stands at the south end of the strip. The Moulin Rouge sign currently lives in the boneyard of the Las Vegas Neon Museum, which I happened to visit with my parents just yesterday. It’s hard to get good pictures of the sign because it’s SO HUGE, but I managed a few shots. You’re welcome.

 

After segregation ended in Las Vegas in 1960, Black boarding houses like Harrison House became unnecessary. Genevieve Harrison, who owned Harrison House, died three years before the Moulin Rouge agreement was signed. The home fell into disrepair in the decades after her death and was ordered to be demolished by the city in 1983. Somehow, the demolition never occurred, and it was purchased by Katherine Duncan in 2011 who deeded it to Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce. Harrison House is now a community center and a museum – with a garden.

You can find out more about Harrison house on their website or Facebook, or go in and talk to Ms. Duncan if you get a chance. She is an absolute treasure trove of information. I can’t find their hours online, but their contact info is on their website, and I know they are open most days for tours.

I write these blog posts and I try to wrap them up with some kind of little message or insight or whatever, but I’m kind of struggling here. It’d be really cool if I could be like, “And that’s why segregation is bad, thank goodness it’s over.” But I can’t. Because this shit is still happening today. Like right now.

I mean, sure, people of color can legally go places and rent rooms (unless it’s an Airbnb, I guess, then the neighbors might call the cops on you if you’re not white enough). They’re allowed to go into cafes and eat with their friends (but not Starbucks). Neighborhoods have been desegregated for years, so it’s totally normal to see a mixture of folks in your average suburban neighborhood (okay, maybe not in Las Vegas neighborhoods). Recreation segregation is definitely a thing of the past – people of color can absolutely have access to public recreation spaces (oops, not in Oakland).

And that’s the point, you know. We don’t really have de jure segregation anymore. Like, our laws don’t typically mandate segregation (although I would probably argue that our entire fucking country was founded on white supremacist ideas, which is woven into all of our societal systems, including our system of laws). So instead of saying, “It’s illegal for you to be here, non-white person,” we just say, “You don’t belong here. You don’t belong in our restaurants, or our public spaces, or our neighborhoods. And if you are here, we’re gonna call the police to make us feel safe. Even though it might mean that they kill you. Because we don’t even really mean ‘All Lives Matter.’ We just don’t like it when you say ‘Black Lives Matter.'”

I don’t really know how to wrap all of that up into a neat little message, you know?

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