Oliver Lovat: A long way to go

September 19, 2023

Regular Gaming America contributor, Denstone Group CEO and Vegas historian Oliver Lovat explores how Las Vegas desegregated and made way for diversity in the gaming industry, but still faces the shadow of a history of anti-Semitism, racism and sexism.

Stetsons and fedoras were omnipresent, rising above slot machines and facing dealers in early Las Vegas casinos, but under those hats, both the customers and casino employees were predominantly white male Americans; Las Vegas’ journey to diversity did not come easy.

The Two Las Vegases

A Black presence in Las Vegas is almost as old as the city itself, with economic migrants from all backgrounds making the journey to the desert outpost for work and a better future. As the town’s tourist economy grew, with the arrival of predominantly white construction workers in nearby Boulder City, the local population separated; the Black community was forced away from Fremont Street’s hotels, bars and casinos to the west side of the train tracks, where the infrastructure was less developed.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Downtown saloons grew to more elaborate resorts on The Las Vegas Boulevard. Legendary Black entertainers, including Sammy Davis Jr, Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne frequently headlined the showrooms, drawing in customers to both stay and play.

However, those same artists were unable to reside at the hotels or even be seen on the casino floor, as laws enforcing segregation were applied. The city was characterized in a 1954 article in Ebony Magazine, as “The Mississippi of the West."

An alternative nightlife scene grew on Jackson Avenue on the flourishing “Westside” for the predominantly Black community. The pinnacle of this movement was the short run of The Moulin Rouge, opening in June and closing in October 1955.

This was the first actively desegregated casino in Las Vegas. Irrespective of the majority Jewish-owned property, it was a venture rooted in progressive idealism, a commercial decision to provide a gaming product to a particular demographic, or a bit of both; the property was highly influential in challenging the conservative narrative.

As a viable business, the timing was terrible, and it failed, joining The Dunes, Royal Nevada and Riviera in filing for bankruptcy. Unlike the others, it never reopened to its full splendor. Originally coming to town as a performer at the Moulin Rouge, William H “Bob” Bailey became a familiar face in Las Vegas.

As an entertainer, lawyer, TV host, Civil Rights advocate and educator, Bailey was one of several early public voices advocating for change in the city, but from the outside.By the late 1950s, many of the performers and entertainers were demanding change if they agreed to perform in their showrooms; and in some cases defiantly challenging protocols by entering public spaces, knowing the adverse publicity would be damaging to business.

Although The Sands had employed Jimmy Gay in 1952, well before the property’s opening, he was one of the few Black executives inside the industry. In 1958, The Stardust offered Billy Daniels a residency; he was the first Black artist to achieve this type of deal. Conversely, Black customers were not awarded the same “favor” and were excluded from even entering to hear him perform.

The disparity of the Las Vegas experience, based on racial heritage, was laid bare.

Two-Way Leadership

Las Vegas was a curious melting pot, as in addition to Black migration, many Jews, Greeks and Italians facing discrimination in their adopted cities made their way out west. Some had opened businesses, including casino resorts (with backers from the east), engaged in professions and communal life, but there was a strong artery of racism running through the state’s politics.

McCarthyite journeyman, Senator Pat McCarran, who represented Nevada in The Senate for 21 years, was a known anti-communist, racist, anti-Semite and xenophobe, noted historian Michael Green. McCarran had a list of enemies and frequently wielded his power against those that displeased him. Many of the casino owners towed the line.

As the Civil Rights movement took shape across the US, and with McCarran’s death in 1954, cracks emerged in Las Vegas’ segregated status. By 1960, four casinos – The Sands, The Riviera, The Dunes and The Flamingo (all having alleged ties with Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky) – operated on a non-discriminatory basis. For most, Black people remained barred.

The Moulin Rouge showed that integration was possible, and in 1960 the Black community organization, The NAACP, led by Dr. James McMillan and Dr. Charles West, called for change and an end to segregation in industry employment, access and hospitality participation within 30 days.

Some within the Black community urged caution at confrontation, but a coordinated and highly public demonstration to “Shut The Strip” was called for on March 26. Many casinos resisted the change, some citing economic concerns, others challenging the principle. As locals, entertainers and campaigners from across the country readied to protest, the nation’s media awaited the highly anticipated showdown.

On the morning of March 25, in the coffee shop of the shuttered Moulin Rouge Hotel, The NAACP leadership met with newly elected politicians Governor Grant Sawyer and Mayor Oran Gragson, as well as with Hank Greenspun, the outspoken owner of The Las Vegas Sun, to resolve matters. At 6:00PM the talks concluded.

The outcome was that the strike was called off and the Strip resorts would desegregate, thus allowing Black customers to frequent the casinos and have the right to work in front-of-house positions. Although some casino owners, notably Benny Binion at The Horseshoe, ignored the new guidance, The Moulin Rouge Accords marked the formal end of sanctioned racial discrimination in Las Vegas, but certainly did not prove the end of inequality in the city.

Sarann Knight-Preddy, who worked in The Jackson Street Cotton Club (which was a small Westside gaming saloon) in the 1940s, went on to become the first Black woman to receive a gaming license in the state in 1950, when she bought The Tonga Club in Hawthorne, northern Nevada.

However, when she later returned to Las Vegas, she found herself unemployable in gaming, as the city had instituted a city-wide ordinance banning women dealers in 1958. With the support of a campaign by the NAACP, she landed at Jerry’s Nugget (owned by Greek-born Jerry Lodge and his brother-in-law Jerry Stamis) outside the city’s boundaries.

Evolution, And A Little Revolution

After the Moulin Rouge Accords, there was an incremental embracing of the Black community, but many of the promised jobs were going to the back of house, in low-paid areas. When Caesars Palace opened in 1966, they hired front-line employees from minority backgrounds, notably Benny Figgins, who remained the final day-one employee at the property, dealing cards and sharing stories until his retirement in 2022.

But this was clearly not enough, and led Charles Kellar, Las Vegas’ NAACP President, to turn to the courts. Kellar’s action led to a consent decree in 1971, obligating Las Vegas operators to implement Civil Rights Legislation that 12% of certain job categories would be open to Black people. There was to be an end to the “jobs for the boys” mentality, with hiring and promotion to be based on inclusivity and merit.

Gay joined The Plaza as AGM, where he stayed for many years, also serving as the first Black member of the Nevada Athletic Commission, as well as a longstanding Executive Board Member of the NAACP, Culinary Local 226, National Conference of Christians and Jews, member of the Clark County and State Democratic Central Committees and President of the Negro Funeral Directors Association.

The decree was the catalyst for a wave of Black hiring on The Strip. Working with Bob Bailey to set up a training school for minority dealers, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, (as portrayed by Robert De Niro in “Casino”) was now running The Stardust, and hired Clarence Ray and John Edmond at the casino, while Josh Isom ran catering.

Odell Jackson Jr led food and beverage at The Hacienda, George Williams was Executive Chef at The Aladdin, William Smith ran equal opportunity compliance at The Del Webb portfolio, and Jackie Brantley and Faye Todd built careers at The Desert Inn.

In 1972, Ebony Magazine pictured 19 Black entertainers standing under The Caesars Palace marquee, promoting Harry Belafonte and Nancy Wilson, with the headline, “Once Segregated Town Is Mecca For Blacks Seeking Exciting Living.”

Women Trailblazers

For women and low-skilled Black women in-particular, the opportunities were not so forthcoming. It was direct action that overturned Nevada’s 1971 proposed legislation on welfare cuts that targeted women with children, which had a particular punitive consequence for Black families. Led by Ruby Duncan, the predominantly female protestors disrupted casino operations on The Strip and blocked access to several resorts. The proposed legislation was overturned by the courts.

Nationally, the US Federal Government passed The Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, ending discrimination against women. Nevada did not immediately ratify the legislation. Although it was Helen Stewart’s land sale that precipitated the birth of Las Vegas in 1905, it was not until Claudine Williams and her husband Shelby moved to town in 1965 that the impact of women in gaming was felt on The Strip.

The couple bought the Silver Slipper in 1965, selling to Howard Hughes as part of his acquisition program in 1969 for $5.4m, plowing the profits into The Holiday Casino. On Shelby’s passing in 1977, Claudine took on the role of President and General Manager of the resort, becoming the first woman to do so on The Strip. The hotel was sold to the Holiday Inn in 1983 and today operates as Harrah’s.

Downtown, another influential spouse, Jeanne Hood, ran The Four Queens on Fremont after her husband Dave’s passing. Under Hood’s leadership, the property expanded and renovated. Movie star Debbie Reynolds held aspirations to operate in Las Vegas, but her 1992 Hollywood Hotel and Casino was beset with problems and her licensing application process outlasted the resort’s viability.

Breaking barriers for women in the associated professions was Sierra Construction’s Kitty Rodman, who played a key part in the physical building of many of Las Vegas’ resorts and infrastructure; it became less rare to see women assume leadership roles in politics, business and law by the late 1970s. There was little evidence of this on the Las Vegas casino floor, however; change there was met with resistance.

Sam and Bill Boyd owned The Eldorado in Henderson, where they had successfully employed women dealers. When the ordinance banning women dealers was overturned in 1970, they decided to implement their policy of hiring women at the newly opened Plaza on Main Street, where they were part-owners and operators.

“They called my dad a traitor because he came to Las Vegas as a dealer and they said now, Sam Boyd, you’re taking our jobs away; ladies belong at home with the kids and taking care of the house and you’re taking our jobs away; it isn’t right. He thought it was the right thing to do, so he did it.”

After a bold, but unsuccessful run for City Council, Sarann Knight-Preddy went back to casino ownership, opening The People’s Choice Casino, a stone’s throw from Jackson Avenue, and in 1989, bought the long-shuttered Moulin Rouge Casino. In 1992, it was placed on The National Register of Historic Buildings, but was destroyed by fires in both 2003 and 2009.

Despite numerous attempts to revive the property, 900 West Bonanza Drive remains a vacant lot, and notwithstanding the huge changes across the City, it is still on the “wrong side of the tracks” for investment.

New Times, Old Challenges

The early 1980s were a difficult time for the city, as wider economic malaise, the MGM and Hilton fires and the rise of Atlantic City as a challenger (where many of the next generation of women in gaming found their start), all combined to put pressure on Las Vegas’ casino operators.

This was also the decade when the era of true corporatization began in Las Vegas, with many established hotel chains acquiring Las Vegas’ resorts, while others like Circus Circus Enterprises went public.

Drawing a parallel between Civil and Labor Rights, long-time casino worker Hattie Canty led numerous strikes and protests as part of the Culinary Workers Union, before she was elected President of 226 in 1990, building the Union to one of the most powerful organizations in Nevada.

Some resort owners engaged fully with the Union, whereas others resisted. Famously, Bill Bennett at Circus Circus and Sahara fed the striking union workers in their long-running dispute at The Frontier, spending over $1m on food alone.

However, not all of the “old-school” owners were as benevolent. Ralph Engelstad, owner of The Imperial Palace had an eye for collecting military memorabilia, in particular Nazi memorabilia, including cars belonging to Hitler, Göring and Mussolini. Reporter Jeff Burbank wrote that Englestad’s interests were indeed more than just collecting; on several occasions Nazi-themed parties were held to mark the birthday of Adolf Hitler, in a room with 40-foot Swastikas draped the walls next to blown-up photos of Nazi rallies.

Staff wore “Adolf Hitler – European Tour 1939-1945” clothing, and displayed full-length paintings of Englestad and Hitler in Nazi uniform, with the inscriptions “From Adolph (sic) to Ralphie” and vice-versa. Jewish employees of the hotel were found to cut the birthday cakes. Elsewhere, the hotel’s print room was alleged to have produced “Hitler Was Right” bumper stickers.

This was not the 1940, 50s, 60s or 70s, this was 1989. The Mirage was under construction and billions of dollars of investment were heading to the city. Once again, not a good time for bad publicity. Engelstad, worth over $450m, was fined $1.5m by the Gaming Control Board but was allowed to keep his license, operating the property until his death in 2002.

Better Times

The advent of the ‘megaresort’ and corporatization of the industry led to the need to hire tens of thousands, of both skilled and unskilled workers, in a relatively short period of time. Employment and hiring practices changed and the workplace culture adapted to those of any other large corporation. Las Vegas grew from a town of 35,000 people in 1950 to 700,000 in 1990 and over 2.9 million in 2023.

“The gaming economy has benefitted the Black community here. Quite a number of Blacks have got good jobs in the gaming industry,” reflected Clarence Ray, who started by working in the Westside saloons, ended his career at The Dunes and served as a part-owner of several smaller gaming and hospitality enterprises across the city.

However, it wasn’t until 2002, when Don Barden acquired Fitzgerald’s on Fremont Street, that there was Black ownership of a major Las Vegas casino. Barden was to die in 2011 and the property is now The D. on The Strip. Cuban American, Alex Meruelo, also bought The SLS Las Vegas in 2017, restoring it to The Sahara with a full renovation in 2022.

As the megaresort age continued, women took leadership positions at many properties in town, however, front-line women continued to face harassment in the workplace. The real change happened when human resources implemented zero-tolerance policies, replacing “management discretion.”

Slowly, the old behaviors that were once prevalent in the industry were unsustainable, as one generation of executives was replaced by the next. Incidents that would have been ignored in previous decades became highly public scandals, with career-ending consequences for executives.

The women in leadership roles actively supported each other across companies, a rarity in this competitive industry. They established a women’s network, promoting mentoring programs, leaving a legacy of good practice. In Las Vegas, many early female leaders have traversed into other roles in management of casinos, resorts and corporations, in law, governance and regulation of the industry, and are increasingly driving the future of the suppliers and technology sectors.

When, in 2019, Sandra Douglass Morgan was appointed the first Black Chair of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and when McCarran, Las Vegas’ primary airport was renamed after Harry Reid in 2020, there was collective consensus that Las Vegas had finally entered a new era.

Farewell And Welcome, Again.

When people claim that Las Vegas was better in the good old days, ask them, for whom? Our industry bears a legacy fraught with discrimination, injustice and hardship, and the state, the city and the casino industry owes much to those who won those battles. Some won by patience, debate and negotiation, others by force, will and perseverance.

Las Vegas’ story is that leadership is not the exclusivity of management and financial success does not assure moral right. It also tells us that when change occurred in Las Vegas casinos, the primary color responsible was green; business came first.

Emerging from colleges and universities, today’s industry professionals are starting from a different place to those working in the mid-20th century. Today, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and this industry owes a debt to those who made our city both welcoming and fabulous – and not just words on a sign.


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