The Legacy of Black Entertainment and Activism at Las Vegas’ Moulin Rouge
When it first made its name as a place where tourists flocked to gamble, see live shows, and spend a night out on the town, Las Vegas was also home to a growing African American population. African Americans started moving to the city around the turn of the 20th century, and black-owned businesses quickly cropped up on the city’s west side, where non-whites were segregated due to discriminatory housing practices.
The Moulin Rouge Hotel & Casino was built near Berkeley Square in 1955, and nothing of its caliber had yet been seen on the west side of town. The building included 110 rooms, a swimming pool, and a neon Eiffel Tower and Googie-style sign. The Moulin Rouge was primarily white-owned, though a small portion of the property was in African American boxer Joe Louis’ name.
Celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Bob Hope, and more all visited the Moulin Rouge during its original five-month stint. The most popular show at the hotel was “an African-themed late-night show called the Tropi Can, which featured Las Vegas’ only all-black chorus line,” according to Alan Mattay at the University of Las Nevada, Las Vegas.
Despite its popularity, the original integrated hotel and casino was only open for five months. The Moulin Rouge made another appearance in black history on March 26, 1960, when it was the site of a meeting between the local chapter of the NAACP and city officials that unofficially ended segregation in Las Vegas.
Since the meeting, ownership of the Moulin Rouge changed hands several times, and it never achieved the same level of success as it did during its brief heyday. The structure burned to the ground in 2009, and though there have been multiple attempts to rebuild since, nothing stuck until Spec Builders USA Inc. put in a bid to “build a revived Moulin Rouge and a civil rights museum on the site,” according to a May 2018 story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
A new building can never replace the original Moulin Rouge,
which was listed in the Travel Guide (a guide for black tourists similar to the
Negro Motorist Green Book), but there may be hope for the future of this
symbolic icon of integration and the struggle for civil rights in Las Vegas.
To learn more about the history and legacy of the Moulin Rouge, we spoke with Michael Green, Associate Professor of History at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) and board member of Preserve Nevada, and Claytee White, Director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries who formerly served on the Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission.
Give me a brief outline of the history of the Moulin Rouge.
Green: The Moulin Rouge opened in the spring of 1955. It was part of a building boom and a population boom going on in Las Vegas at the time. The population of this area more than doubled in that decade. There had already been substantial growth in the African American population, thanks partly to [industrial development] during World War II, and to the growth of gaming on the strip.
White: As a result of this boom, we got the first African American middle-class community [in Las Vegas], Berkeley Square, in 1954 at the same time that the Moulin Rouge [was built].
Green: Now that there was a growing African American population, a middle class, an upper-middle class, and a professional class [were possible]. There were business people, teachers, and medical [professionals] who formed the backbone of the civil rights movement here, and the Moulin Rouge would go on to play an important symbolic role in that later.
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What was the racial landscape of Las Vegas like at the time?
White: I don’t think there were laws on the books, but [segregation] was just de facto.
Green: In 1872, the Nevada Supreme Court had declared segregated schools unconstitutional. And I think the main reason was that the African American population was around 125 in the state, and they couldn’t afford to build segregated schools.
In Las Vegas’s case, the mayor from 1931 to 1935 and 1943 to 1951 was a Democrat named Ernie Cragin who especially encouraged redlining. I have a copy of a restrictive covenant from the ‘40s. When the original [Las Vegas] townsite was built in 1905 and thereafter, there was an effort to push all non-whites to the edges of town.
White: [But] African Americans owned small nightclubs and restaurants and beauty shops—there was an African American business corridor in the Westside community.
Green: And I’d throw in the Westside Federal Credit Union, which was also started by an African American businessman, Woodrow Wilson. But in terms of a resort hotel comparable to the resorts on the strip, that did not exist. I don’t think that the African American community in Las Vegas at that point would have had the capital.
White: I think the owners saw the possibility of earning income that other people could not see at that point. The Moulin Rouge grew as a result of the idea that African Americans also had disposable income.
What makes the Moulin Rouge interesting, in terms of architecture and design?
Green: [The building’s architecture] refers to Googie style, which evokes the space age. The New Frontier, which opened on the strip the same year, had a space motif.
Las Vegas has a reputation for building stylized or idealized or ersatz versions of other places, and [the hotel] was modeled on Paris’ Moulin Rouge. That side of the story doesn’t seem to get that much attention, but the Moulin Rouge may actually be a bigger part of the evolution of how Las Vegas presents itself than I think we realize.
How did the meeting between the NAACP and local officials at the hotel on March 26, 1960, help end segregation in Las Vegas?
White: The National NAACP at about this time [sent letters] asking branches across the country to up-level their efforts towards integration. The letter went to the head of the [Las Vegas] branch, Dr. [James B.] McMillan. Once that letter was received, Dr. McMillan—without discussing it with many people in the community—sent it to the mayor of Las Vegas at that time. He gave the city two weeks to integrate.
If integration did not take place by March 26, 1960, the African American community was going to march on the Las Vegas strip. Negotiations happened behind closed doors, leading to the meeting we all talk about. But I think, when they met in that room [in the Moulin Rouge], the decision had already been reached.
I don’t [believe] it was just that meeting on March 26 that caused integration to happen. There were small pushes along the way and the Moulin Rouge was just one of those—the professional class was demanding more than had ever been demanded by the black community.
What became of the site since the original Moulin Rouge closed just five months after opening, and what is left of the hotel today?
White: Now, it’s a vacant lot; it burned to the ground in 2009. But prior to that, we can see a legacy of struggle. It was never returned to that heyday period—that was all over. At one time, ownership was discriminating against African Americans, charging more for drinks than what they charged for white patrons. And then [there was] black ownership in the 1980s and 1990s. Once that was lost, it never reopened again.
What does the future of the Moulin Rouge look like, since the lot was purchased by Spec Builders in 2018?
White: The area is almost exclusively industrial on that block. There is a brewery across the street, and it’s not that far from the Smith Center, our performing arts center. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we hear [about] lots of possibilities.
Green: There had been talk, when the building still stood, of putting a museum there. And the Las Vegas Review Journal is [also in the Westside neighborhood]. Part of their property now includes the offices and warehouse of the Neon Museum, which at its main site has the old Moulin Rouge sign, a classic work designed by Betty Willis, who also designed the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign.
What is lost when places like the Moulin Rouge are gone?
White: We lost that idea that something that luxurious was once in an African American community. All of those kinds of things survived on the Las Vegas strip, even in times when our economy goes into a downturn, but it couldn’t survive on the edge of the African American community. So for some people, you lose hope.
Green: Las Vegas has been widely known for imploding old hotel casinos and turning some of them into tourist events. It pains me to lose them … but the Moulin Rouge was something more than just another joint. Not to have the building there, or even to talk about having a replica doesn’t do it justice.