How Frank Sinatra helped end racial segregation in Las Vegas

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How Frank Sinatra helped end racial segregation in Las Vegas
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It’s well known that The Beatles refused to play to a segregated audience during their 1964 American tour. What’s less known is that Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack did something very similar in Las Vegas years earlier, helping to bring racial segregation to the attention of major policymakers.

As in most other American towns in the 1950s and early ’60s, Las Vegas entertainment venues were segregated between Black and white-owned establishments. Almost all of these venues were owned by white businesspeople, meaning that Black Americans were barred from entering the majority of venues regardless of their criminal record. In Las Vegas, Black-owned entertainment venues were mostly confined to the west side of the strip. African American and Hispanic workers were forced to work low-paying jobs in white-owned clubs or else seek employment at one of the clubs that favoured Black workers.

Interestingly, among those seeking to end segregation were Vegas’s organised crime families, who wanted to desegregate the city, shut down non-white-owned clubs and expand their markets there. This led to the opening of integrated nightclubs modelled on the venues of the Harlem Renaissance by crime bosses like Will Max Schwartz, who opened the Moulin Rouge, an upscale casino, in 1955. The venue shut down after a year, but it laid the foundation for integration in Las Vegas.

Then came the Rat Pack. According to Sammy Davis Jr’s memoir Hollywood In a Suitcase, the musicians were a driving force behind integration in Las Vegas, with Frank Sinatra once refusing to perform at the segregated Sands Hotel unless they agreed to give Davis Jr. a room. By 1953, the Will Maston Trio featuring Sammy Davis Jr. had already become the first Black artists to headline a show on The Strip. The following year, Frank Sinatra invited Sammy to open for him at The Sands.

Following Sinatra’s complaint, Sammy and the Will Maston Trio became the first African Americans to be offered a complimentary room, drink and access to a casino on The Strip. It’s said that after this success, Sinatra, Sammy and the others started making similar demands of other establishments, forcing owners to amend their policies in favour of integration. It wasn’t until 1960 that integration gained the support of policymakers. With a possible protest of Las Vegas casinos on the horizon, the mayor met with local businessmen and agreed to desegregate the city. It was a small step but an incredibly important one.

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