Las Vegas’ Westside Story
The Moulin Rouge Hotel in the city’s Westside District served as a brief monument to racial justice in the 1950s.
BY HEATHER CAPUTO
For five months in 1955, Las Vegas’ Westside District was an unlikely center of African American entertainment, culture, and optimism. The source was the city’s new Moulin Rouge Hotel, which opened at a time when racism was rampant across the nation.
In the 1950s, African Americans weren’t allowed in downtown Las Vegas, or on The Strip, except to work “back of the house” jobs like cooks and maids. Blacks in Las Vegas, including famous performers, were segregated to the west side of town. It was there in 1955 that the Moulin Rouge Hotel opened its doors and stormed into history.
Hotel owners boldly welcomed both Black and White performers and patrons. Las Vegas’ first racially desegregated hotel offered gambling, a fine French restaurant, tuxedoed and white-gloved waiters, and some of the most famous acts in the world. The dream didn’t last long, though. Due to financial troubles, the Moulin Rouge Hotel closed in less than five months, but it has remained historically relevant.
THE HISTORIC WESTSIDE
The Historic Westside measures 3.5 square miles and is located 6 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Despite its proximity, the city’s attentive neon glow rarely reached the area in the ‘50s, and there were few paved roads, streetlights, or sidewalks.
“When we were growing up, some people lived in tents, some people lived in shanties. I mean real shacks,” Westside resident Leonard Polk remembers.
What the Westside community lacked in services and civil rights, however, it made up for in camaraderie, culture, and determination. The close-knit residents created their own city within a city. There were shops, churches, doctors, and even a mini-Las Vegas Strip on Jackson Street, now called Jackson Avenue. According to Claytee White, director of Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the residents came together with some of the era’s most celebrated performers.
“In the 1950s, African Americans who wanted a night out went to Jackson Street,” she notes. “After the acts wrapped on The Strip for the night, African American performers came to the Westside. You could find Nat King Cole playing the piano in the Louisiana Club and Pearl Bailey entertaining with her friends from the community. And they lived at some of the boarding houses.”
THE MOULIN ROUGE AGREEMENT
In 1960, growing resentment over segregation reached a boiling point. Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, and other famous performers spoke out against Las Vegas’ prejudiced practices, so did many Westside citizens and organizations.
On March 26, the NAACP threatened a march down The Strip if casinos weren’t integrated. They knew a civil rights march would bring bad press to the burgeoning entertainment capital of the world.
The day the march was scheduled to take place, an agreement was reached between hotel owners, city and state officials, and local Black leaders. Las Vegas casinos were desegregated on March 26, 1960. The signing of the Moulin Rouge Agreement took place at the defunct Moulin Rouge Hotel.
Soon after the signing, the agreement was tested by attempts to patronize Strip locations. Ruby Amie-Pilot and her husband tested the Dunes Hotel.
“We stopped at a gaming table, and we placed our money down for change, and they passed us up and didn’t ever give us the change,” Amie-Pilot recalls. “After a while, we went to the showroom where they seated us up in the balcony, way in the back.”
Ruby’s husband asked the maître d’ to be moved to better seats. When he refused, the couple asked for hotel management.
“The maître d’ left and he came back and immediately brought us down and almost set us on the stage, and we were apologized to. We were told we could gamble at any table or drink at any bar we wanted to, and we did,” she says
CHANGE COMES AT A PRICE
The testing of the Moulin Rouge Agreement was successful, but desegregation did not improve conditions on Las Vegas’ Historic Westside. In fact, it had a negative impact.
“Integration tore African American communities apart because some of the most well-to-do African Americans moved out of the communities,” White says. “In some cases, they took businesses out of the community.”
The weight of change smothered the already economically challenged Historic Westside. More and more buildings were boarded up, lots sat vacant, and Jackson Street’s magic faded. The area withered under the desert sun for so long that it became brittle and broken.
However, the Moulin Rouge Hotel still stood, an empty space full of memories and potential.
In 1992 the hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places. After weathering the decades, though, its fate was finally sealed in 2003 when an arson fire destroyed the building. While the structure is gone, talk of redeveloping the Moulin Rouge Hotel and the surrounding area has been happening for years.
The Moulin Rouge Hotel only operated for five months in 1955, but its history remains a symbol for peace and positive change. Community leaders continue to work with the city to revitalize the neighborhood. Perhaps a new rendition of the Moulin Rouge Hotel will rise from the ashes and serve to invigorate and inspire the Historic Westside community and the city of Las Vegas as a whole.