Green Book–the real thing, not the movie–shows racist history of Las Vegas

racist history of Las Vegas

Green Book 1962 edition (courtesy New York Public Library)

The name of the Best Picture Oscar-winning movie “Green Book” comes from a published guide to places where black travelers and tourists could stay without being hassled on account of their race during much of the 20th century after the advent of automobiles. In the movie, the Green Book was used to help guide real-life characters–black pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali, who won his own Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and his white driver/bodyguard, Tony Vallelonga (portrayed by Viggo Mortensen)–across the deep South during a 1962 concert tour.

The South, of course, was infamous for its racial intolerance. So it’s easy for folks in other parts of the country to look back and smirk. However, the Green Book–its full name was the Negro Motorist Green Book–quickly came to cover the entire United States.

And it proved to be an interesting measure of racial comity. Based on the paucity of listings in most places, few regions came out looking good.

But few fared as poorly as Las Vegas.

The Green Book was published from 1936 until 1967, after passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in places of public accommodation and mooted the guide’s raison d’être. During that entire three-decade period, Las Vegas dramatically rose in destination popularity as a gambling and entertainment mecca. Yet only a total of five places to stay–and no places to eat or get a haircut–ever appeared in any edition of the Green Book.

In 1962, the year depicted in the movie, just four Las Vegas lodging establishments were listed in the Green Book. All four were located in the black section of town now known as the Historic Westside. None was on the Strip, which supposedly had started desegregating its premises in 1960. Indeed, the final edition of the Green Book in 1967 listed the same four establishments–and nothing on the Strip.

Still New To Las Vegas, I have been aware of the Green Book for some time. In 2012, I cited it at length to describe the deplorable historic segregation of Seattle, where I lived at the time. I now have reviewed almost all of the annual editions, which can be found online at the New York Public Library. The publication is named after its founder, New York postal worker Victor H. Green, who got much of his information from a network of fellow post office employees and, eventually, travelers themselves.

In Las Vegas (as well as Seattle), things are a lot better now, but the Las Vegas area’s bad racial history is well known. In 1954, Ebony magazine called Las Vegas the “Mississippi of the West” for its racial practices, substandard housing for blacks and Strip exclusion practices. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas football team–the Rebels–once had Confederate emblems on the helmets. Dixie State University–can any name more invoke the racist South?–is located just up Interstate 15 in St. George, Utah, the nearest population mass of any size.

racist history of Las Vegas

Harrison Guest House historic marker

Entertainers of color in Las Vegas on the Strip often had to stay elsewhere. Indeed, one place occasionally listed in the Green Book, the Harrison Guest House at 1001 N. F St., so often housed the entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. that he was wrongly thought to have owned the property. A historic marker sporting Davis’s picture (see photo nearby) adorns the bungalow building, which is now owned by the Las Vegas Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce and used as a cultural center.

History has not been kind to the other Las Vegas locations in the Green Book, judging from a recent spin I took around the Historic Westside. The Hotel Jackson at 405 W. Jackson Ave. is gone, as are the Carver House at 400 W. Jackson Ave., the Shaw Apt. Tourist Home at 619 Van Buren St., and the West Motel at 950 W. Bonanza Rd. Ironically, the opening up of the Strip to visitors of all kinds probably hastened the demise of these places.

Five establishments. That’s all that Las Vegas had to offer for the longest time to minority visitors.

In case you wonder about the rest of vast Nevada, the situation wasn’t much better. The 1962 Green Book listed five other places. Two were in tiny, nearby Boulder City: the Boulder Dam Hotel and the Lake Meade Lodge. Reno, then roughly the same size as Las Vegas, also had two, the Hawthorne Tourist Hotel and the New China Club. The fifth was the Louis Motel in tiny Elko, astride the Transcontinental Railroad in northern Nevada.

Had Don Shirley with his muscle taken his act to Las Vegas in 1962, he would have encountered a rough scene. By comparison, maybe the deep South wasn’t so bad.

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