Las Vegas Black history tours and Black-owned dining

Dancers from the Moulin Rouge in 1955Dancers from the Moulin Rouge in 1955 — Photo courtesy of Archival Collection, Don T. Walker Photograph Collection, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Drive to the 900 block of West Bonanza Road in Las Vegas’ Historic Westside, and all that’s left of the Moulin Rouge Hotel & Casino is a giant vacant lot and a series of peeling murals on an adjacent building. But this spot on the National Register of Historic Places is a portal into the city’s Black history.

The Black-run and staffed Moulin Rouge opened in May 1955 as the only integrated hotel and casino in Las Vegas and billed as “the nation’s first major interracial hotel.” It extended a welcome mat to guests and players of color at a time when Black people were barred from casino entry unless employed there. Prior to Moulin Rouge, even stars like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. had to enter the Strip hotels through back entrances, despite their names in light on the marquee out front.

“The Moulin Rouge and its impact on the Black community and the role it played in the desegregation of Las Vegas can’t be understated,” says Shakala Alvaranga, director of public programs for The Mob Museum: National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement in Las Vegas. Alvaranga’s recent sold-out Black History program, “A Night at the Moulin Rouge,” spotlighted dancer Anna Bailey; Sammy Davis Jr.’s adopted son, Manny Davis; and Katie Duncan, who worked at the real-life Moulin Rouge.

A peeling mural shows present and past at the Moulin Rouge siteA peeling mural shows present and past at the Moulin Rouge site — Photo courtesy of Beth D’Addono

A quick history lesson

Las Vegas was officially founded in 1905 after the opening of a railroad that linked Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. However, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that the town became segregated, notes Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries. As one of five founders of the Las Vegas Black Historical Society Inc., White has interviewed hundreds of people who lived through those times.

“The Ku Klux Klan marched down Fremont Street in 1925,” she says. “It was the railroads that dictated where Blacks would live, literally across the tracks.” Once thriving Black businesses downtown had their licenses revoked and were forced to pull up stakes and start anew on the west side of town.

“It was systemic racism at work,” continues White. “Blacks couldn’t qualify for FHA loans until 1968. We couldn’t build the wealth White folks could. The kind of housing developments that were transforming neighborhoods all over town just didn’t happen here.”

For some years, business along Jackson Avenue, also known as the Black Strip, managed to stay afloat. That changed in 1960 when a meeting of city and state officials, hotel owners and local Black leaders was held at the then-shuttered Moulin Rouge. An agreement was struck to desegregate all Strip casinos.

“What happened then was what happened all over America,” says White. “Middle-class Blacks left the poorer section of town to improve life for their families.” Add rising unemployment, the crack cocaine epidemic and a lack of city support and leadership, and Las Vegas’ west side fell onto hard times.

Historic Westside today

Signs of hope in the Historic WestsideSigns of hope in the Historic Westside — Photo courtesy of Beth D’Addono

It’s taken decades, but, in 2016, the Historic Urban Neighborhood Design Redevelopment Plan (The HUNDRED) was developed to spur community-led investment in the Historic Westside.

Suddenly Crosby, who grew up in this neighborhood, is now a geographic information system specialist and special projects coordinator who has worked for the city’s Planning Department. Crosby has spent the past six years collecting and analyzing the kind of data upon which The HUNDRED depends for its evolving success.

Suddenly Crosby leads tours of the Historic WestsideSuddenly Crosby leads tours of the Historic Westside — Photo courtesy of Beth D’Addono

In January 2023, Crosby launched Historic Westside Tours, offering two 90-minute tour experiences that take visitors around the neighborhood and downtown in a mini-bus. One itinerary follows Black history and redevelopment, the other traces the Pioneer Trail and Las Vegas Native American history. The tour includes parks and green spaces being transformed into urban farms and community spaces, street art murals and historic structures, including the first Westside school and the Harrison House, a low-slung cottage at 1001 F Street.

In 1942, Genevieve Harrison opened her home to travelers and divorcing couples who couldn’t stay at hotels on the Strip due to segregation laws. Entertainers, including Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr. slept there. Davis was such a frequent guest that there’s a room, filled with photos and memorabilia, named after him.

At the Harrison House, you’ll meet owner Katie Duncan, who worked at the Moulin Rouge in its later years. Duncan bought the Harrison House in the early 2000s to preserve its role in Las Vegas’ Black history.

“We were on page 55 of the Green Book,” she explains to visitors. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, published between 1936 to 1967, was a guide to essential services that enabled Black families and businesspeople to travel relatively safely in segregated America.

Katie Duncan talks about the Harrison House and the Green Book with visitorsKatie Duncan talks about the Harrison House and the Green Book with visitors — Photo courtesy of Beth D’Addono

Other stops along the Historic Westside Tour are aspirational, including James Gay III Park, named after the late Black community leader who played a pivotal role in helping to integrate the Strip. The park is being outfitted for urban vertical farming to bring fresh produce to the neighborhood — a project funded, in part, by a $500,000 gift from MGM Resorts International.

There is also an affordable housing component in the works, along with a Moulin Rouge entertainment district and a restaurant by Chef Jeff Henderson, founder of The Chef Jeff Project. Henderson’s nonprofit organization offers culinary, hospitality and life skills training to underserved and system-impacted men and women in the community.

In 2022, the Las Vegas City Council approved a contract to develop a master plan for an African American Museum and Cultural Center in the Historic Westside. Crosby says the future is looking brighter for this neighborhood where she was raised.

“My focus, as a young Black woman and mother, is to look to the future, to look ahead to where we are going next,” she says.

Other sights and sounds

You can see the original Moulin Rouge sign at the Neon MuseumYou can see the original Moulin Rouge sign at the Neon Museum — Photo courtesy of The Neon Museum

The Neon Museum downtown is a “boneyard” of brilliant vintage neon signs, including the original Moulin Rouge sign in all its pink splendor. Reserve a tour of this outdoor attraction. Dusk and evening are the best times to soak in the rays of Vegas bling.

Mad Apple features music direction by Xharlie BlackMad Apple features music direction by Xharlie Black — Photo courtesy of Denise Truscello / Getty Images for Mad Apple by Cirque du Soleil

Don’t miss Mad Apple by Cirque du Soleil at New York New York Hotel Casino. A majority Black cast powers through this high-energy magic, fantasy and dance production, with music direction by Eddie Cole, whose great uncle was Nat King Cole. Performing as “Xharlie Black” in this Vegas show, Cole also has played drums for and toured with legendary rap artist Nas.

Dine at BIPOC restaurants

Eat. is a Black-owned restaurant from chef Nat YoungEat. is a Black-owned restaurant from chef Nat Young — Photo courtesy of Beth D’Addono

Eat. is the creation of chef Natalie Young, who surmounted a life of drug addiction and loss to become an award-winning chef and flourishing restaurateur. Get the shrimp and grits, but everything is fresh and tasty here.

Gritz Café, in the Historic Westside, dishes Southern soul fare, including chicken-fried steak and catfish po’ boys. Opt for sweet potato pie for dessert. Owned by Trina Jiles, the first Black woman firefighter of Clark County, Gritz aims to be “the best Southern-style restaurant that provides Black excellence in the form of great food and outstanding customer service.”

Soul Foo Young, also in Historic Westside, is a mash-up of soul food and Chinese food, offering everything from wings and collard greens to fried rice and egg foo young. Try the Melt in Your Mouth Peach Cobbler or Chardonnay Cake for dessert.

Buldogis Gourmet Hot Dogs, in Summerlin, is the vision of Ohio-born chef Boyzie Milner and wife, Mi Sun, who hails from Seoul. The menu focuses on beef, turkey or veggie dogs, with toppings like spicy pork bulgogi and angry kimchi. The bibim rice bowls are swell too.

18 Bins is located in the heart of the Las Vegas Arts District. This gastro-pub, operated by Abraham Taylor, offers an eclectic menu that includes street tacos, vegan options, local craft brews and specialty cocktails.

At Nigerian Cuisine by MJ, across from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Maduka “MJ” Joseph creates authentic dishes from his home country. Savor a menu of fish pepper soup, jollof spaghetti, yam porridge, plantains and other Nigerian staples.

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