There’s quite a bit already written about Las Vegas’ first inter-racial hotel and casino but this is such a singular site, with such a layered history, it deserves a post here. Plus, the visual materials—matchbooks, postcards, ads—are so good, it wouldn’t serve to leave them in my files where they couldn’t be seen.
The Moulin Rouge is different from most of the sites in the Mapping Green Book project in a couple of significant ways. First, it was extremely well-known at the time of its opening on May 26, 1955. The hotels and casinos of Las Vegas were, up until that time, strictly segregated, which caused all kinds of hardships for the dozens of African American performers who were booked there. Las Vegas and Nevada had already established a harsh policy of spatial segregation, wage suppression, and terrible living conditions for African American workers, and though there were hotels that had tried to push back on these policies, at the time of the Moulin Rouge’s debut, none had yet succeeded. It’s splashy opening was made much of in local and regional newspapers, so it’s closing, only five months later, was pretty shocking.
The building complex itself if differs from many MGB sites in that there is an architectural firm of record: Walter Zick and Harris Sharp, Architects. The firm is responsible for much of Las Vegas’ iconic mid-century architecture (there’s a link to their papers in the UNLV libraries in the sources below) and it suggests that the group of investors, including Louis Rubin, a restauranteur who owned Chandlers in New York, and LA developer Alexander Bisano, were going out big.
The building site, at 900 West Bonanza Road, is on the west side of Las Vegas, an area that had already been designated the black side of town, and thus received little or no city services well into the 20th century. It’s worth noting that the Moulin was built here, and not on the Vegas strip where the other casinos were. This may have been a way of skirting the formal and informal segregation laws of the city and state, which still barred African Americans from eating, gambling, and staying in hotels and casinos on the strip. On the west side, African Americans were already permitted to do these things—the shift was in allowing whites to join them. So we still essentially have a system where black people are not allowed in white spaces, but now white people are invited into black spaces. Inter-racial space, at this point, does not mean equity, or parity.
The Moulin Rouge’s second moment of significance is the role it played, as a venue, in changing this dynamic. In March of 1960, the NAACP held a meeting at the Moulin Rouge with local casino owners, businessmen, and politicians, and according to the National Register nomination form and other sources, this meeting effectively ended segregation on the strip. There’s clearly a longer, more complicated story there, but this moment at the Moulin Rouge complex (the original MR had closed back in 1955) adds another layer to the building’s history.
According to Google maps, the building is still there, along a rather ragged stretch of road punctuated by abandoned-looking storage buildings and razor wire. The original building complex was concrete and stucco with a shingle roof, embellished with a fantastic neon sign blazing along street-facing side of the casino building. At the time of it’s National Register nomination in 1992, the interior decoration of the casino building, along with the theater and auditorium, were still intact, and were described as ”colorful murals depicting can-can dancers, fancy cars, and onlookers.” The Moulin Rouge has suffered a number of uses, as well as a fire in 2003, but hopefully the sign, which survived the fire, is sequestered safely somewhere.
The history of the Moulin Rouge is well documented. Here are a few sources that I’ve found helpful:
Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas. University of Las Vegas Libraries.
Smithsonian Magazine ”The Vegas Hotspot that Broke All the Rules,” by Kevin Cook. January 2013.
Walter Zick and Harris Sharp Architects. Papers and ephemera held in the University of Nevada Las Vegas libraries.
Although the MGB blog’s been pretty quiet this year, I’ve started some research on hotel and motel sites in south Jersey, particular the shore towns south of Atlantic City, and while I’m not yet ready to post much from that effort, I find something to share that I’d like to know more about. In hunting around for material about the Hotel de Griff in Cape May, NJ, online, I came across this:
According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which hosts this document online and holds it in their collection, this is the Negro Business Directory of the State of Wisconsin 1950-1951, written and edited by one M.E. Shadd.
Publications like the Green Books and Travelguide came out of the tradition of Negro Business Directories, which were published by communities going back to the 19th century. They usually included churches, educational institutions, funeral parlors, insurance agents, and other professional offices as well as small businesses that were owned and run within the black community. Directories often included several essays in the beginning for the book that would describe their purpose and highlight the most prominent endeavors of members of that city or town. Listings for the most important people and institutions were often full page profiles with professionally shot photographs. They can be seen as both a utilitarian tool for helping people find black-owned businesses that would serve them, and a way to promote the accomplishments of African American doctors, lawyers, clergy, and other educated professionals. Directories say, “we are here” in a number of ways.
M.E.Shadd’s directory from 1950 for Wisconsin is part of this tradition. The book has the same kinds of listings traditionally found in Negro Directories, like this one for an attorney.
And this page, which features the Milwaukee Urban League Guild:
It also features, toward the back of the book, a national listing of “Hotels (Owned and operated for or by Negro people).” A state by state listing follows, which includes the Hotel de Griff (this is how I found it) and a few other lodgings. The Wisconsin directory is interesting because it’s a kind hybrid between the old style of local Negro Directory and the national hotel and travel guides, and even offers a motto, ”Enjoy your vacation without humiliation,” that is close variant on Travelguide’s “Recreation without Humiliation.”
The Shadd directory is also interesting because of M.E. Shadd herself. Although I’ve found a tremendous amount of evidence that women worked, owned, and ran many of the recreation and lodging businesses that catered to African Americans throughout the twentieth century, this is the first time I’ve found a travel guide that was written and published by a woman. Here she is, in the editors note at the beginning of the book.
Hi, thanks for your question. That sounds like a terrific angle, and one I hadn’t really thought about but makes sense now that I see where you are going with it. The person who has done the most research on Victor Green is Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, who wrote her dissertation on the GB. She is the only one I know of who has had access to the family archives and papers and I think it would make sense to start there.
I have her cited in my further reading as well as a link to her page at the Cooperstown graduate program, which she directs. Let me know what you find out and keep us posted on the progress of your project.
I talked a bit about Murray’s Dude Ranch, in Victorville, CA early on in the blog’s history, when I was posting about Herb Jeffries, the singing cowboy and The Bronze Buckaroo. Many of the Jeffries films, including BB were shot at Murray’s, a dude ranch in the desert about an hour from Los Angeles that catered to an African American clientele, beginning way back in the early part of the 20th century.
Earlier, I had linked a short history by the National Park Service, because there were very few artifacts of or histories about Murray’s to refer to, and it only exists, like many of the sites from the Green Book, primarily in people’s memories and a few newsclippings here and there. So I was pretty excited to obtain this postcard, which I believe to be original, that depicts Murray’s as the “Overall Wearing Dude Ranch” in Victorville, CA. This image is just completely amazing, and the level of detail and the discreet visibility of the structures make it the clearest image I have every come across of this site.
There’s no date or writing on the back, but its the only thing like it I’ve ever seen, and I’m guessing from the way the ranch is built out that it dates from before WWII. With it, and the clips from Bronze Buckaroo, supplemented by the archival clips, I potentially might be able to reconstruct a site plan or at least a schematic. Because Murray’s heydey dates from from the 1920s, as opposed to most of the other sites I’m looking at that date from the 1950s, finding living eye-witnesses is much harder, but I suspect that in some of the papers and oral histories of west coast jazz musicians that are held in collections around Los Angeles, I might find a mention of Murray’s. That, along with the history of the Murray’s themselves, might be enough to piece together a serviceable history of this extraordinary lost place.
Here is the listing for Murray’s in the Green Book (1949) that is online and mentioned in the Slate.com piece. I will try to dig up the ad from Travelguide and post as well.
Very grateful for and overwhelmed by the totally unexpected notice on Slate.com today, and particularly for the many excellent comments, tweets, email messages, shares and new Followers this bit of press has garnered for MGB. I know it will take a few days for me to get back to everyone who asked a question or suggested a resource, but I hope to do it soon. So if you’re coming for the first time, thanks very much!
The MGB project is officially re-igniting, inspired by the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans. This years’ AHA meeting in NOLA is particularly tantalizing for the MGB project, as New Orleans was the site of the Plessy v Ferguson case that initiated the segregation of travel that defined the landscape of The Green Book. A number of intriguing panels are on the schedule and I’ll be posting on a few sessions related to race, landscape and the Jim Crow era from the conference as I am able. With some luck I may be able to visit a few of the sites in New Orleans as well, and provide a bit of background about the city’s singular place in the cultural history of race and space.
During my not entirely planned hiatus from this project, I’ve been quietly collecting objects and artifacts. One of them, my favorite, perhaps my most treasured and rich acquisition so far, is sitting in front of me on my dining room table. I’ve been looking at it for a couple of months now, and I am a little afraid of it, the way you might be afraid of a piece of jewelry that is too nice to wear on your quotidian rounds.
It’s a scrapbook, the way that people used to make scrapbooks—with care and attention to each page and its composition. And from what I can tell, it was made by an African American schoolteacher from Richmond, VA, a woman who traveled around the U.S. with a group of fellow teachers in about 1947. It appears from some of the articles pasted into its very fragile pages, that she was traveling with a group known as the “Pals Club”, who had taken a month-long trip to the West and the Grand Canyon. If the barriers to an undertaking like this were formidable, they were not alone in tackling them. Schoolteachers, and you could look to Mary McLeod Bethune among many others, were among the first and most ambitious African American tourists and travelers after World War II. It’s also a spatial document, a kind of map of its own that describes a particular itinerary, a set of interests, a navigation through segregation or in spite of it, toward the kinds of sights that lots of people wanted to see after the war was finally over—Mission Delores, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans.
The pages are filled with brochures, cards, paper souvenirs, maps, postcards and other ephemera from hotels, churches, tourist sites, restaurants, and cab services, among others. It is the kind object you really want to find, but never do. When you study cultural history in the post-mass-production era, you have this problem of material, because so much of what you look at—your evidence, whatever it might be—has been mass produced and distributed in a way that makes it impossible to know what people might have thought about it. Contrast this with my friends who study 18th century history who can track down who published a book and, through the publisher’s records, determine who ordered it, and when. How would you do that with a postcard? or a travel guide?
So this scrapbook is kind of the holy grail for a 20thc historian of vernacular, or everyday, history: a highly personal, specific and datable commentary on mass-produced material. On the cover, as if to make sure I get it, there is nothing but three words: “An Ideal Scrap Book.” But it is also part of someone’s life, someone who may or may not be alive today, and who might have family and friends. So, this is both exciting because they could be found and interviewed, and completely intimidating because this is an intimate part of someone’s life that requests both sensitivity and humility.
So in the next few weeks, I’ll start tracking down the woman who made this scrapbook. I’ll find out her name, and where she taught—there weren’t very many schools in Richmond that taught and employed African American teachers—where she lived and who the Pals Club was and where else they might have traveled. I’ll might make a little map of all the places she and the Pal’s Club visited as documented by the scrapbook. And at some point, I’ll give it away, to the NMAAHC, if they want it for their collections, or to a local museum in Richmond, or even back to the family, because it shouldn’t stay here, it should be seen.
7.20.12 | at desk
A few weeks back, when I was out at the NEH Institute, I went on a driving tour of Central Avenue in Los Angeles with Dell Upton. If you’ve never been on a tour with a couple of architectural historians, it basically consists of driving around for multiple hours without stopping while clutching various lists of addresses in hand. It’s a very particular kind of pleasure. And so it was for us. Armed with our complementary lists of sites, a GPS and some cameras, we killed a few hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon driving around the historically African American section of LA—Central, Jefferson, Adams. I got to see some of the major LA hotel sites from the travel guides from my list, including the Dunbar (Sommerville) Hotel, the Paul Williams-designed YMCA, the Lincoln Hotel and a few others. On Dell’s music-focused list, we saw the homes of Bill Bojangles (also Paul Williams), Eric Dolphy, and Hampton Hawes. I even got a bonus drive by of Marvin Gay’s house. I saw more things than I could list here, but most of all I got to see how the neighborhoods were organized, the industrial areas that cut them off from and shaped their growth, and the way in which they’ve continued to evolve as more hispanic families have moved in. Can’t get that from a book. Or a map.
But these were the success. Many of the sites on my list were no longer there, especially the lesser known clubs and hotels. Toward the end of the day, we drove down Jefferson Avenue looking for the La Dale Motel. I didn’t have much expectation of finding it. The La Dale was one of two or three motels with the same name at different addresses listed in the guides from the late 1950s. They weren’t very fancy and didn’t have any associations that might have caused them to be retained that I knew of. But low and behold, there it was:
Pretty much completely intact.
I was pretty excited.
Later Dell did some digging and it turned out the La Dale Motels and Hotels were the business venture of one Jack Lauderdale. Lauderdale owned Downbeat Record Store in the late 1940s and a label called Swing Time in the 1950s. Lauderdale and Swing Time, along with John Dolphin’s legendary shop, Dolphin Records, had been central pillars in the jazz and r+b scene in LA in the 1950s. It was a great little find that tied the travel and hotel sites of my list with music-related sites on Dell’s list. So the La Dale was much more than a little motel in the landscape, it was part of the whole fabric of the music scene in 50s Los Angeles that would influence the evolution of post-war jazz (and art, I might argue) all over the world.
6.30.12 | ucla
Below I’ve posted a prototype of the kind of mapping exercises I’ve been working on while at the NEH Summer Seminar at UCLA for the last two weeks—in part because I felt like I needed to show that I am actually making things, but also to illustrate the challenges of doing this kind of project. This is what building an argument is like in this medium.
So the video below is a quick snapshot of lodging, food and auto services listed in the Green Book and other guides in California from about 1939 to about 1960. With a Legend, more complete data, and a few tweaks so that you could see it a little better, it would be a simple way to where and when these businesses developed. But given that it took me the better part of a very focused day to make even this clumsy version, it demonstrates the importance of thinking through your argument before you sit down to create a visualization. Other than a snapshot of how/where travel sites are appearing, what kinds of questions does this exercise satisfy?
The answer is, Not Many. It does, if you look very closely, raise some questions. Unsurprisingly if you know anything about Los Angeles, most of the businesses cluster around Central,and as time moves forward you can see them moving south down the spine of the avenue. There is also a suggestion of a kind of zoning that takes place over time. Some parts of the central district seem to split off and attract clusters of like business—garages, gas stations, auto services—for example. And, also unsurprisingly, its clear that state-wide, the sites are attaching along main highways and at the border crossings of Nevada and Mexico. But there are wide swaths of the state where there just isn’t much. Is that because everything was open? in other words, are there no places listed in the guides for these areas because it was generally known that these areas didn’t discriminate? I would say no. Anecdotally, and from the personal accounts I’ve read, people didn’t take chances if they didn’t know a place. But that’s an open question too.
After a pretty intensive week of trying to build out the maps in various forms and on various platforms, I realize I need to work smarter. I think there’s a kind of balance that has to be struck between waiting to see what the visualizations might show us and building them with a certain intention or thought that they might support a pre-existing idea. There’s always some kind of hypotheses driving the process of making these maps, but I also want to leave it open to see what the maps might show us, otherwise there isn’t much point.
I’ve only got one or two working days left here and quite a bit to pull together before I present on Tuesday morning, so I will want to be strategic about the kind of visualizations I try to build. How can I build something that is actually a form of research in and of itself, and not just a representation of research I’ve already done?