Las Vegas wasn’t much more than a Sin Village in the early 1950s. With a population of 24,000, one twenty-fourth its current total, the city was smaller than Allentown, Pennsylvania, or South Bend, Indiana, and so remote that the Army tested atom bombs an hour’s drive away. Guests on the upper floors of hotels like Binion’s Horseshoe watched the mushroom clouds.
Downstairs, cowboy-hatted Benny Binion, a mobster and convicted murderer from Dallas, lured gamblers to “Glitter Gulch” with a brand-new casino featuring velvet wallpaper and carpeted floors—a step up from the traditional stucco and sawdust. A few miles to the southwest, mobster Bugsy Siegel’s venerable 1946 Flamingo lit up the Strip, as did the Desert Inn, the Sahara and the Sands, all built between 1950 and 1952, all serving prosperous postwar customers who were, not coincidentally, all white.
The town’s black residents occupied a 3.5-square-mile area called the Westside, where dirt streets ran past tents, shanties and outhouses. Jim Crow laws enforced their second-class status. Negroes, as they were printably called, could work at Strip and Glitter Gulch hotels and casinos only as cooks, maids, janitors and porters—“back of the house” jobs that kept their profiles and wages low. Black entertainers were better paid but no more welcome in the front of the house. When Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald headlined on the Strip, they slipped in through stage doors or kitchen doors and left the same way after taking their bows. Unable to rent rooms at whites-only hotels, they retreated to boarding houses on the Westside. Famous or not, they couldn’t try on clothes at white-owned stores. “If you tried something on, they made you buy it,” one Westsider recalls. Another local tells of the day Sammy Davis Jr. took a dip in a whites-only swimming pool at the New Frontier. “Afterward, the manager drained the pool.”
Cole learned his lesson the night a Strip doorman turned him away. “But that’s Nat King Cole,” his white companion said.
“I don’t care if he’s Jesus Christ,” said the doorman. “He’s a n——-, and he stays out.” - Continue reading at Smithsonian.com.