Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr.
Scott and Dorothy Bullitt
Professor of American History
 
 
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African American History | African American History in the West (Now available at www.blackpast.org)  


History 313:
The History of African Americans in the West
Manual - Chapter 8
World War II and the Black West

Introduction | Chap. 1 | Chap. 2 | Chap. 3 | Chap. 4 | Chap. 5 | Chap. 6 | Chap. 7 | Chap. 8 | Chap. 9 | Chap. 10

CHAPTER EIGHT: World War II and the Black West

This chapter explores the momentous changes brought about by the wartime migration of thousands of African Americans to western cities. The first vignettes, The March on Washington, 1941 and Can Negroes Really Fly, provide the context for the civil rights challenges that would come in the West and throughout the nation. Japanese Internment--One Black Newspaper Responds shows how the Northwest Enterprise (Seattle) reacted to the growing anti-Japanese sentiment right after Pearl Harbor. African American Soldiers Defend Hollywood details the new roles blacks soon found themselves in after the War began. The next five vignettes: The Growth of Black San Francisco, 1940-1945, Black Women Migrate to the East Bay, Lyn Childs Confronts a Racist Act, Etta Germany Writes to the President, and Northeast Portland: The Growth of a Black Community, all reflect on various aspects of the migration and its aftermath. The vignettes Black Women in the Portland Shipyards and Black Portland Women and Post-War Discrimination focus on the experiences of women in the largest city in Oregon while Sex and the Shipyards and White Women and Black Men in the Portland Shipyards describe sexual tensions between black and white shipyard workers. Black Builders of the Alcan Highway describes the efforts of black soldier-construction workers to create one of the engineering marvels of the 20th Century. In Blacks, Whites, Asians in World War II Hawaii, we see how African Americans fare in a territory that, unlike the mainland United States, is not predominately white. The 1944 Port Chicago explosion and mutiny are profiled in The Port Chicago Tragedy. Finally, African American settlement in Southern Nevada is described in Las Vegas: The "Mississippi of the West."


Terms for Week Eight:

  • Executive Order 8802
  • Fair Employment Practices Committee
  • Harlem Hellfighters
  • The Committee for the Defense of Negro Labor's Right to Work at Boeing Airplane Company
  • Christian Friends for Racial Equality
  • Fort Lawton Riot
  • Lyn Childs
  • "hot bed"
  • Charlotta Bass
  • Nickerson Gardens
  • Thelma Dewitty
  • James v. Marinship
  • Vanport
  • Hunter's Point
  • Sue Bailey Thurman
  • Alcan Highway
  • Westside (Las Vegas)

THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON, 1941

In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a black political activist since 1917, proposed a March on Washington to protest discrimination in the defense industry. Six days before the march was to take place President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which outlawed discrimination in defense plants and, in the process, opened jobs for all non-white groups except for the incarcerated Japanese Americans. Part of Randolph's call for protest is printed below.

We call upon you to fight for jobs in National Defense. We call upon you to struggle for the integration of Negroes in the armed forces....This is an hour of crisis. It is a crisis for democracy...It is a crisis of Negro Americans....

While billions of taxpayers' money are being spent for war weapons, Negro workers are being turned away from the gates of factories, mines and mills....Some employers refuse to give Negroes jobs when they are without union cards and some unions refuse Negro workers union cards when they are without jobs.

What shall we do?

We propose that ten thousand Negroes MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS IN NATIONAL DEFENSE AND EQUAL INTEGRATION IN THE FIGHTING FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES.

But what of national unity?

We believe in national unity which recognizes equal opportunity of black and white citizens to jobs in national defense and the armed forces, and in all other institutions and endeavors in America. We condemn all dictator¬ships, Fascist, Nazi and Communist. We are loyal, patriotic Americans, all.

But, if American democracy will not defend its defenders; if American democracy will not protect its protectors....if American democracy will not insure equality of opportunity, freedom and justice to its citizens, black and white, it is a hollow mockery and belies the principles for which it is supposed to stand.

Abraham Lincoln, in times of the grave emergency of the Civil War, issued the Proclamation of Emancipation for the freedom of Negro slaves and the preservation of American democracy.

Today, we call upon President Roosevelt, a great humanitarian and ideal¬ist, to follow in the footsteps of his noble and illustrious predecessor and take the second decisive step in this world and national emergency and free American Negro citizens of the stigma, humiliation and insult of discrimina¬tion and Jim Crowism in Government departments and national defense.

The Federal Government cannot with clear conscience call upon private industry and labor unions to abolish discrimination based upon race and color as long as it practices discrimination itself against Negro Americans.

Source: Thomas R. Frazier, Afro American History: Primary Sources, (Chicago, 1988), pp. 291 294.


EXECUTIVE ORDER 8802

Following a dramatic meeting with civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which appears below.

Whereas it is the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, in the firm belief that the democratic way of life within the Nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups within its borders: and

Whereas there is evidence that available and needed workers have been barred from employment in industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color, or national origin, to the detriment of workers' morale and of national unity:

Now, Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the statutes, and as a prerequisite to the successful conduct of our national defense production effort, I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin, and I do hereby declare that it is the duty of employers and of labor organizations, in furtherance of said policy and of this order, to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin:

And it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. All departments and agencies of the Government of the United States concerned with vocational and training programs for defense production shall take special measures appropriate to assure that such programs are administered without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin;

2. All contracting agencies of the Government of the United States shall include in all defense contracts hereafter negotiated by them a provision obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin;

3. There is established in the Office of Production Management a Committee on Fair Employment Practice, which shall consist of a chairman and four other members to be appointed by the President. The chairman and members of the Committee shall serve as such without compensation but shall be entitled to actual and necessary transportation, subsistence and other expenses incidental to performance of their duties. The Committee shall receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in violation of the provisions of this order and shall take appropriate steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid. The Committee shall also recommend to the several departments and agencies of the Government of the United States and to the President all measures which may be deemed by it necessary or proper to effectuate the provisions of this order.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
THE WHITE HOUSE,
June 25, 1941

Source: Thomas R. Frazier, Afro-American History: Primary Sources (Chicago, 1988), pp. 296-297.


"CAN NEGROES REALLY FLY AIRPLANES"

This was the question posed facetiously by Eleanor Roosevelt in April, 1941. The answer to her question appears in the vignette below, taken from an account of the black World War II era Tuskegee Airmen, described by Omar Blair, a Denver resident who became a member of the elite group.

Omar Blair likes to tell the story about Eleanor Roosevelt and the Tuskegee Airmen. He particularly likes the part in which the peripatetic outspoken wife of the president stood on a grass strip in April 1941 near Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and asked an outrageous question: "Can Negroes really fly airplanes?"

Months earlier four black schools--Tuskegee, Hampton Institute, Virginia State, and Howard University--had been named as the schools to offer the Civilian Pilot Training Program to black college students. With the increased threat of U.S. entrance into World War II, the War Department was being pressured to use black officers and pilots in the newly established Army Air Corps. The choice for this training was between Tuskegee and Hampton institutes. Eleanor Roosevelt had been chosen to evaluate their qualifications, to meet with Charles ("Chief") Anderson, the project director of the program, and to ask, as it turned out, the right question. As Anderson told it, he answered: "Certainly we can fly. Would you like to take an airplane ride?" When the Secret Service realized where she was going this time, they first forbade it, and when that did not work, they called her husband. FDR replied with the wisdom of long experience: "If she wants to, there is nothing we can do to stop her."

Thirty minutes later, Eleanor Roosevelt climbed down from the back seat of Anderson's Piper J-3 Cub, posed for photographers, and with a broad grin reassured everyone that, yes, Negroes could fly. Her return to Washington was followed by the birth of the Tuskegee Airmen, a victory in the history of participation of blacks in the military--except for one glaring failure: this unit, like all others, would be segregated and commanded by white officers. Blair, a former Tuskegee Airman and an imposing figure who led Denver's Board of Education during the 1970s, said with some delight: "But this failure is where the Establishment made its mistake--they put us on our mettle."

Why was this considered a victory? Because for the first time there was a real crack in the armor of white supremacy within the military--only a crack, but destined to widen....

Source: Joan Reese, "Two Enemies to Fight: Blacks Battle for Equality in Two World Wars," Colorado Heritage 1 (1990), p. 2.


JAPANESE INTERNMENT--ONE BLACK NEWSPAPER RESPONDS

Most of the press in the United States, and particularly on the West Coast, viewed the Japanese (both citizens and aliens) as a potential threat and eventually applauded the internment of the Japanese. One black Seattle newspaper, the Northwest Enterprise, however, challenged that view and immediately after Pearl Harbor, urged its readers not to succumb to the already growing anti-Japanese hysteria. It printed a rare front-page editorial on the subject which appears below.

For more than three long years, Japan and the United States have been at sword's point. It was a case of watchful waiting. Japan never ceased her vigil. Somehow, somewhere we have faltered. If we slept, it certainly was a rude awakening. The manner of attack, the loss of lives, the loss of ships and ammunition will always find a foremost place in the annals of our history.

As costly as was this treacherous attack, it served a higher purpose: A united nation meets the challenge. 130,000,000 Americans welded into an unbreakable unity. Not a man, not a woman will falter. The have but one determination, to do and to die.

Among these Americans are 15,000,000 Negroes, none of whom in their long and glorious record in wars, has ever smeared or fired on the flag. Nor have we ever spawned a Quizzling [sic] or a Benedict Arnold.

This war finds us in the midst of a glorious fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Today we call a truce to answer a higher duty, our country's call. If the Axis wins, we have no need for life, liberty or happiness. It will be beyond our reach.

The probability is that we have not heard the worst. But as long as war lasts, men, ships, and air planes must be lost.

Don't lose your head and commit crimes in the name of patriotism. As treacherous as was this unheralded attack on our country, it should bring no reprisals [against] innocent Japanese citizens on our shores. The same mob spirit which would single them out for slaughter or reprisal, has trailed you through the forest to string up at some crossroad.

These Japanese are not responsible for this war. They certainly are good citizens, they attend their own business and are seldom if at all found in court. Especially is it tragic that these native born should be singled out for abuse, insult [and] injury. Only when mob spirit abounds can they be made to suffer. Mobs and mad dogs spew their venom without reason.

And right here is where our vaunted Christian religion may make it's final stand. In your treatment of them ask yourselves: "What Would Jesus Do?"

The secret agents of this government will do a better job in ferreting out its enemies than you, and do it more efficiently.

Set an example for these un-American labor unions by your truce and unitedly tell them they too should suspend their strikes and direct their blows against the enemy, not their country and their homes in its hour of peril.

Lets' keep our record clear.

Source: Northwest Enterprise, December 12, 1941, p. 1.


AFRICAN AMERICAN SOLDIERS DEFEND HOLLYWOOD

In perhaps one of the most unlikely developments of World War II, African American soldiers who were part of the 369th Coast Artillery, and elite New York National Guard regiment dubbed "the Harlem Hellfighters," found themselves stationed in the backyards of Hollywood celebrities, as part of the defense of the West Coast against the anticipated Japanese attack on the mainland in the first months following Pearl Harbor. Here is a brief account of their experiences and reception by Hollywood.

The 369th was supposed to go home after a year's training. But a little more than a month before their hitch was up, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A few months later they were sent to defend the Southern California coast and American race relations took another odd turn.

The 369th was ordered to set up their anti-aircraft guns in the backyards of some of the wealthiest white people in American, including a few of Hollywood's biggest stars. There, in the midst of elaborately coiffed lawns and landscaped gardens, twelve black troopers set up their tents in each yard and settled in for who knew how long.

Some residents were appalled by the Army-style integration of Burbank, California. William De Fossett, Regimental Sergeant Major of the 369th, remembers hearing someone complain: "We've never had negroes living her and now they're in our backyards with those horrible guns." The men thought the comments funny, particularly since some prominent members of the community--stars like Humphrey Bogart and Rosalind Russell--welcomed their defenders. Bogart told a group of the men that they were welcome to use his house and gave them the keys to show he meant it. And black celebrities like Lena Horne, Leigh Whipper, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and Hattie McDaniel came around to visit the troops.

In Burbank...the flexible identity of the 369th was emphasized. Their racial identity was, in the military command's eyes, subordinated to their role as coast artillery, anti-aircraft combat soldiers. The treatment they received from white and black Hollywood stars strengthened their sense of themselves as elite black soldiers...

Source: Beth Bailey and David Farber, "The 'Double-V' Campaign in World War II Hawaii: African Americans, Racial Ideology, and Federal Power," Journal of Social History 26:4 (Summer 1993:824.


THE GROWTH OF BLACK SAN FRANCISCO, 1940-1945

In the vignette below, historian Albert Broussard describes the rapid increase in San Francisco's African American population during World War II.

The Second World War was a demographic watershed in the history of black San Francisco. Although the city's black population had grown slowly throughout the twentieth century in relation to other black urban communities, it swelled by more than 600% between 1940 and 1945. And in the five-year interim between 1945 and 1950, black migrants continued to steam into San Francisco. By 1950, 43,460 blacks lived in the city where fewer than 5,000 had lived a decade earlier. Few northern or western urban communities had ever experience such rapid growth in a comparable period. With the phenomenal increase in the city's black population, San Francisco suddenly faced demographic change on a scale it had not experienced since the 1849 Gold Rush.

When the United States entered World War II, the nation's economy was transformed... High-paying jobs had become available, and despite the distance, blacks from across the nation, particularly form the South, were eager to move to San Francisco. It was the immediate availability of jobs, particularly in defense industries and in the Bay Area shipyards, that provided the major impetus for this demographic shift. By 1943, according to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the Bay Area was the "largest shipbuilding center in the world..."

And so they came by the thousands, each month, crowding into established black settlements and creating new ones. Sue Bailey Thurman, who would later organized the San Francisco chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, recalled that blacks were "scattered all over the city" in 1942, when she visited San Francisco for the first time. When she returned to San Francisco two years later she stated that "upwards to 40,000 blacks" were living in the city. "It had changed in just that time... The wartime black migration pushed the city's black population far ahead of the Chinese, Japanese, and other nonwhite races in absolute numbers...

San Francisco was not the only black community in California to register impressive increases in its black population. Six Bay Area counties made relatively large gains. Oakland, for instance, recorded an increase of 37,327 blacks between 1940 and 1945, a 341% gain. The East Bay community of Richmond, profiting from defense contracts and shipyard employment, registered an increase of 5,003% in its black population between 1940 and 1947. Fewer than 300 blacks had lived in Richmond in 1940, but the lure of shipyard employment had swelled that number to nearly 14,000 by 1947. Similarly, blacks flocked to Southern California, particularly to Los Angeles, in large numbers. The black population of Los Angeles was 63,774 in 1940, already the largest black community in California. Between 1940 and 1946 it increased 109%. Clearly, blacks were migrating to cities throughout the state in search of employment, but the San Francisco Bay Area registered the largest increases in percentages of its black population.

Source: Albert S. Broussard, Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900-1954 (Lawrence, 1993), pp. 133-136.


BLACK WOMEN MIGRATE TO THE EAST BAY

In the following passage Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo describes the experiences of black women in the World War II era migration to Northern California.

Migrant women...perceived California as a place of relative freedom for black people, a refuge from the harshest manifestations of Jim Crow. And since most migrant women were at a point in their lives where the limits imposed by the white world were particularly painful, California became a symbol of liberation... Filled with such images and expectations, migrant women began their journey in shabby "Colored" waiting rooms of train stations throughout the South. There, they encountered discrimination and indifference from white ticket agents who charged unfair rates, refused to give information regarding arrival and departure times, or ignored black customers until all white travelers had been waited on. From there they boarded Jim Crow cars located at the end of trains, and crowded with servicemen, baggage, and other migrants. Many women believed that this would be their final encounter with Jim Crow, of at least a final brush with this particular type of humiliation. They expected the West to offer them the opportunity to be "somebody," a place where they would be treated like human beings.

The journey, then, was perceived as a passage to a better place. Indeed, migrants who traveled by rail, referred to their carriers as "Liberty Trains." As these trains left the station, however, migrant women were forced to observe segregated seating and dining arrangements. This changes after the train crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the boundary dividing the "zone of racial separation" from that part of the country with an informal...system of segregation.... Ruth Gracon left Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1940 to join her husband in Oakland... Alone with a new baby, Ruth boarded a Jim Crow car. "I remember crossing the Mason-Dixon line and being able to sit in a coach instead of the Jim Crow car. I think it was Kansas City. The Pullman porter was really nice--said that I could sit anyplace now..." Bertha Walker left Houston in October, 1943 to join her husband who had found work on the San Francisco waterfront. Bertha "rode out of Texas on the Jim Crow car...packed with military people." In El Paso, Bertha changed trains, and a soldier who rose to give her his seat said, "you can relax now, because we're at the Mason-Dixon line, and the Great White Father has to look up to you now."

The journey, while exciting, was also emotionally and physically exhausting. Many migrant women had never left the towns and cities where they were raised. And California, despite its golden image, raised fears as well as hopes... The East Bay grew significantly during the war years, taking on characteristics of a boom town. Richmond, in particular, looked wild and unkempt, with government housing projects, trailer parks, cafes, bars, and clubs springing up on swampy vacant lots north and west of the city. New arrivals, unable to find housing, were sleeping in cars and parks. And everywhere, at all hours, people in work clothes...were going back and forth from the defense plants.

Ruth Cherry arrived in Oakland while her husband was at work. At the station....she called a cab to take her to the room her husband had rented. He came home in work clothes, and she started crying when she saw him. "I had never seen him in coveralls and dirty. He was a barber by trade, and always clean." Migrant women, who expected a land of sunshine and orange groves, were immediately disenchanted with the weather. By most...accounts, the years between 1940-1945 were unusually cold, foggy, and rainy. Willa Henry, who drove out with relatives, sent her only winter coat by train with her other belongings. "The night we got there my uncle took us out to eat at Slim Jenkins [an Oakland nightclub] and I thought I would freeze to death coming out of that warm climate.... Canary Jones remembers the rain and mud... "I can remember the hills above Richmond looking so dismal. It was raining a lot then. We were upstairs in the project and the wind would blow and blow, and I would cry and cry..."

Source: Gretchen J. Lemke-Santangelo, "A Long Road to Freedom: African American Migrant Women and Social Change in the San Francisco East Bay Area, 1940-1950," (PhD. dissertation, Duke University, 1993), pp. 96-102.


BLACK WOMEN IN THE PORTLAND SHIPYARDS

The following account describes the workplace that greeted African American women who entered the Portland shipyards in World War II. The account below indicates that these women faced greater discrimination than black men in the yard.

In April 1944 Margaret Bernard, an Alabama black woman, wrote to the Fair Employment Practices Committee complaining about racial discrimination in southern shipyards. "I would like to go to Tuskegee to learn Welding and Burning," Bernard wrote, "but I know if I did I would have to go up North in order to Weld or Burn." Margaret Bernard would have been disappointed if she had come north to the Portland and Vancouver shipyards. Racism pervaded the shipyards and the community. Black workers were attracted to the promise of shipyard jobs, but while the black population of Portland grew from 1,934 in 1940 to 22,000 at its wartime peak, racial discrimination remained a problem throughout the war.

Discriminatory practices limited the number of black workers who gained access to skilled jobs. While the unions of unskilled workers admitted blacks, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was the only union representing skilled workers that admitted black workers on an equal basis. The Boilermakers union established a separate black auxiliary whose members were not entitled to full union privileges, and the Kaiser management cooperated in firing workers who refused to join the black union...

Statistics for the distribution of black women by craft and grade are available only for Kaiser Vancouver, which the Kaiser management highlighted during the FEPC trials since it hired the most black workers of the three Kaiser yards. Evidence from the shipyard newspapers, oral history interviews and the files of the FEPC strongly suggest that black women had even more difficulty penetrating the skilled trades than black men. Even the statistics of the Kaiser management for the Vancouver yard, which make no distinction between helper and journeyman, show that while women composed 31 percent of the black work force in 1943, they composed only 20 percent of black welders, 21 percent of black electricians, and a tiny percentage of other skilled trades.

Virginia Lemire, the coordinator of women's services for the three Kaiser yards and the assistant personnel manager at Swan Island, claimed at the FEPC Hearings in November 1943 that black women were concentrated in unskilled jobs because most of them were unqualified and unsuited for skilled work. Both oral history recollections and the records of the Fair Employment Practice Committee demonstrate however, that black women were barred from skilled work regardless of qualifications or training.

Beatrice Marshall, her sister, and her two friends were trained as steel-lathe and drill-press operators in a National Youth Administration (NYA) program in South Bend, Indiana, one of the several thousand NYA training programs that had been geared to meet the demands of defense industries for trained workers. Marshall loved learning to use machines. "I feel like I was a champion on the drill press, and I really did like it," she commented. The NYA paid the four women's train fare to Portland and put them up for the first night at the YWCA. They had brought their papers certifying that they had passed their tests in Indiana, and they were looking forward with excitement to working as shipyard machinists. Their hopes however, were soon dashed. "When we got to the shipyards, ready to apply for the work," Marshall recalled,

They told us that they didn't have any openings as
lathe or drill-press operators; and that we would have
to either accept painter's helper or a sweeper...And
we complained because that wasn't what we was trained
for. And we asked for a job with what we was trained
for. And they said it wasn't any available.

After some persistence, Marshall and her friends got the personnel office to admit that there were openings in the machine shop but they were not accepting black workers. Statistics collected in 1943 show fifty black machinists working in the shipyards, but none of them were women. Marshall and her friends complained to the newly organized chapter of the Urban League but were unsuccessful in gaining admission to the machine shop, so they worked for a while as unskilled laborers and then left the shipyards. Marshall was hurt, angry, and confused. "They was doing all this advertising and wanting us to do this, and here I am spending time and getting trained and qualified and couldn't get it...I was real mad."

Source: Amy Kesselman, Fleeting Opportunities; Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver During World War II and Reconversion, (Albany, NY 1990), pp. 40, 41-42.


SEX AND THE SHIPYARDS

In the following vignette, Katherine Archibald, a University of California researcher, recounted her white shipyard worker fears about interracial sex clouded any attempted friendship between white women and black men in the yards.

The ancient fear of despoliation of women of the privileged race by men of inferior blood, which has played so large a part in the establishment and elaboration of caste systems in all societies, prevailed in the shipyard as well. A rumor was almost always afloat of some attempt by a Negro to satisfy his presumably constant sex hunger for the woman of white skin. There were tales of surreptitious pinchings and maulings in the secluded corners of the hulls, and of successful sexual attacks in the dark streets of the Negro section and in the housing units where Negroes and whites lived in close proximity. I was never able to verify these accounts, but they were invariably accepted as factual and worthy of repetition for their salacious interest and inflammatory value. The Okies were especially disturbed and found it hard to accept the casual contact between Negro men and white women to which Northern custom had long been indifferent--sitting together on streetcars and buses, standing together before lunch counters or pay windows, working side by side in the same gangs. Ordinary association enforced upon the two races by shipyard work and living was actively disapproved by those who were accustomed to rigid lines of separation, and open protests were occasionally made by an incensed individual...

Few insults in shipyard parlance were more searing than "nigger-lover." A white man who sought the company of Negro women was exposed to scorn and partial ostracism. But the scorn was immeasurably multiplied when it was a white woman who desired or passively admitted the Negro’s amorous attentions. With startling swiftness the anger of a race would gather and concentrate upon this one instance of desertion and betrayal. Just such fury spread over the hull on which I chanced to be at work one quiet afternoon when two young white girls, who were stringing cable next to a group of Negro machinists, chose to be as friendly with them as they would have been with a similar neighboring group of white boys. From mouth to mouth the story ran; probable objectors were hurried to the spot to observe for themselves and in turn to stoke the flames of indignation. Threats of public disgrace for the girls were becoming loudly vocal, and expressions of intent to expel them from the hull by force or to subject them to more memorable and brutal violence were crowding on the verge of positive action, when the decisive summons of the quitting whistle put a fortunate end both to the flirtation and to the clamor for punishment.

In the face of these attitudes no white woman, even if she wanted to, could establish normal friendly relations with a Negro man, or even talk with him at length on any topic. Contact of this type, no matter what its actual substance, was immediately translated by the onlooker into sexual terms. On the one occasion when I chanced to have a long and public conversation with a Negro man, the reaction of the shipyard audience was immediate and unequivocal. "Well, when's the wedding going to be?" a bystander inquired of me, and for days a trail of insinuation followed after the simple occurrence. White workers would admit no halfway point between the Negro's allotted role of servile, silent distance from the white woman and the intimacies of sexual union...

Source: Katherine Archibald, Wartime Shipyard--A Study in Social Disunity, (Berkeley 1947), pp. 70-71, 72-73.


WHITE WOMEN AND BLACK MEN IN THE PORTLAND SHIPYARDS

In the following account historian Amy Kesselman describes sexual as well as racial tensions in the Portland area shipyards during World War II.

The emphasis on female sexuality heightened the undercurrent of tension about relations between white women and black men that lurked near the surface in both the shipyard and the community. Business Week, in reporting the discovery that fifty women were working as prostitutes in a Portland shipyard in 1942, cited a Portland policeman who was concerned that if white prostitutes consorted with Negro workers they might encourage black workers “to take liberties with white women,” which might lead to "serious race complications." When Clarence Williams, a black worker at Swan Island, gave a Christmas card to a white woman on his crew, his foreman said to him, "I am going to show you about buying white women presents," and had him discharged.

At the FEPC hearings, Elmer Hann, general supervisor at Swan Island, testified that white women were afraid to work with black male workers. "They really don't know, I guess, what they are afraid of, it just seems to be the inborn nature of a woman and lack of social contact, perhaps, that makes them just a little reticent to be isolated with these people." But white women attempting to increase their social contact with black men in the yards or the community raised eyebrows and could provoke repercussions. After an interracial dance in Vanport, one of the few racially integrated housing projects in the city, the police issued a warning to white women who had been seen dancing with black men that continuing this practice might lead to a race riot. Doris Avshalomov often had lunch with a friend from Reed College and some black students from a southern college.

Some of the white workers would sort of come by and make comments at us--noises. And one night they pulled the lights out of the place where we were sitting. You know, just real annoying things. And finally, my crew leader told me that his superior wanted to talk to me. And his superior--I will give him credit, he was embarrassed, but he said that some people misunderstood the fact that I was just having lunch with these people, and that he just thought we should all just join hands and put our shoulder to the wheel and avoid any kind of disturbance of that sort. And I was just furious....It was just sort of comradely thing. The only people who ever made unwelcome advances to me were white men in the shipyards--but I didn't see my leaderman talking to me about that!

Source: Amy Kesselman, Fleeting Opportunities; Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver During World War II and Reconversion, (Albany, NY 1990), pp. 61-62.


LYN CHILDS CONFRONTS A RACIST ACT

In the following vignette, black San Francisco shipyard worker Lyn Childs, describes how she came to the defense of a Filipino employee on the ship she was repairing. Her account also discusses the reaction from her supervisor.

I was working down in the hold of the ship and there were about six Filipino men...and this big white guy went over and started to kick this poor Filipino and none of the Black men that was working down there in the hold with him said one word to this guy. And I sat there and was getting madder and madder by the minute. I sprang to my feet, turned on my torch, and I had a flame about six to seven feet out in front of me, and I walked up to him and I said (you want me to say the real language?) I said to him,

"You so-in-so. If you go lift one more foot, I'll cut your guts out." That was my exact words. I was so mad with him.

Then he started to tell me that he had been trained in boot camp that any national group who was darkskinned was beneath all White People. So he started to cry. I felt sorry for him, because he was crying, really crying. He was frightened, and I was frightened. I didn't know what I was doing, so in the end I turned my torch off and I sat down on the steps with him.

About that time the intercom on board the ship started to announce,

"Lyn Childs, report to Colonel Hickman immediately."

So I said, "I guess this is it." So I went up to Colonel Hickman's office, and behind me came all these men, and there lined up behind me, and I said,

"Where are you guys going?"

They said, "We're going with you."

When we got to the office [Colonel Hickman] said, "I just wanted to see Lyn Childs," and they said, "You'll see all of us, because we were all down there. We all did not have the guts enough to do what she did, [but] we're with her."

Colonel Hickman said, "Come into this office."

He had one of the guards take me into the office real fast and closed the door real fast and kept them out, and he said,

"What kind of communist activity are you carrying on down there?"

I said, "A communist! What is that?"

He said, "You know what I am talking about. You're a communist."

I said, "A communist! Forget you! The kind of treatment that man was putting on the Filipinos, and to come to their rescue. Then I am the biggest communist you ever seen in your life. That is great. I am a communist."

He said, "Don't say that so loud."

I said, "Well, you asked me was I a communist. You're saying I am. I'm saying I'm a...

"Shh! Shh! Shh! Hush! Don't say that so loud." Then he said, "I think you ought to get back to work."

"Well, you called me Why did you call me?"

"Never mind what I called you for," he said, "Go back to work."

Source: Paul R. Spickard, "Work and Hope: African American Women in Southern California During World War II," Journal of the West 32:3 (July 1993):74-75.


ETTA GERMANY WRITES TO THE PRESIDENT

African American migrants who found work in west coast shipyards encountered the hostile unions which after unsuccessful attempts to bar their employment, resorted to segregating them (and white women) into auxiliary locals. Etta Germany, a black shipyard worker in Richmond wrote directly to President Franklin Roosevelt to protest the discrimination directed against her and other African American shipyard workers. Her letter is reprinted below.

Mr. President
Honorable Sir,

I wish to call your attention to a very disgraceful and UnAmerican situation that now exists in the Boilermakers and Welders Union Local 513 of Richmond, California. I am a Negro girl. Three weeks ago I and lots of others enrolled in the National Defense Training Classes to become welders. I applied for a job at the yards several times. But each time myself and others of my race were give the run around.... [Be]cause of being Negro I was not allowed to join the Union. Now Mr. President there are a great many Negroes in Defense Training as myself who upon completion of the course will be subjected to the same treatment as myself... We are all doing what we can to assist in winning the war. I sincerely feel that this is no time for our very own fellow citizens to use discrimination of this type....

Mrs. Etta Germany

Source: Selected Documents from the Records of the Committee on Fair Employment Practice Field Records, Region XII, Reel 108, Complaints Against Boilermakers File.

NORTHEAST PORTLAND: THE GROWTH OF A BLACK COMMUNITY

When historians discuss the rise of segregated northern black communities they understandably focus on the largest cities--New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. But many of the trends in such cities were evident in smaller locales such as Portland, Oregon. Portland's black community dates back to the 1850s but by World War II it along with other west coast cities saw an influx of African Americans. By 1945, Portland had 22,000 blacks who overwhelmed the pre-1940 black population of 1,931. The following vignettes trace the rise of the 20th Century black community in Portland. The first two vignettes are part of editorials which appeared in local African American newspapers, the Portland Advocate, and Portland Observer. The third is from a special report on black Portland published in the Portland City Club Bulletin.

We all know what residential segregation means. It means poor housing, bad streets, deficient lighting. It also means separate schools, and their attendant shortcomings.... It is segregation that is the root of all interracial troubles. We think that many of us will live to see in Portland the spectacle of separate schools and all the rest of the segregation as practiced now in the South. It is reasonable to expect it in the wake of residential segregation.

Portland Advocate, July 12, 1930

* * *

In Portland the Negro people are passively witnessing the development of a first rate ghetto with all the potential for squalor, poverty, juvenile delinquency and crime... It is obvious that the herding of Negroes into the district extending from Russell Street to the Steel Bridge and from Union Avenue to the river front portends economic and social problems of far reaching significance for this city. The struggle to get a more equitable housing arrangement for all minorities will require the undivided attention of all socially conscious minority group leaders.

Portland Observer, July 20, 1945

* * *

Over fifty percent of Portland's 11,000 Negroes are concentrated in census tracts 22 and 23, better known as the Albina district....one small area in the city which is about two miles long and one mile wide.... Living conditions in the Albina district are more crowded today than ten years ago.... In confining a majority of its Negroes to a restricted section of the city, Portland has forced them to live in crowded, ancient, unhealthy and wholly inadequate dwellings.... Confinement to an inferior and relatively unattractive neighborhood is a daily reminder of the prejudice of the white majority, and constant reinforcement of feelings of inferiority and resentment.

Portland City Club Bulletin, April 19, 1957


BLACK BUILDERS OF THE ALCAN HIGHWAY

The vignette below describes the black soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway during World War II.

The construction of the Alcan (now called the Alaska Highway) has been likened to the building of the Panama Canal. Most experts predicted it could not be done. Its route through the unmapped Canadian Rockies spanned some of the coldest, toughest, least explored country in North America. Yet the Corps of Engineers pushed through a 1,500 mile pioneer road linking Alaska to the outside world in just eight months and twelve days.

One-third of the 10,607 soldiers who built it were black. The Alaska section was built solely by black troops of the 97th Regiment under white officers. The 388th, another Afro-American regiment of about 1,250 Corps of Engineer recruits was employed building a spur road off the Alcan near Whitehorse to [the] Norman Well oil fields in the Northwest Territories. And the 93rd and 95th regiments of black troops worked on the road north from Dawson Creek. Yet black troops were, for the most part, invisible and the considerable mark they left on American history was--until recently--unrecorded.

Building the Alcan was considered crucial because the Japanese Navy threatened American's west coast shipping lanes and there was no land link to important U.S. military bases in the north. So Brig. General Clarence Sturdevant was apologetic when he broke the news that he was sending black regiments north to Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., all powerful head of the U.S. Army in Alaska: "I have heard that you object to having colored troops in Alaska and we have attempted to avoid sending them. However, we have been forced to use two colored regiments and it seem unwise for diplomatic reasons to use them both in Canada since the Canadians also prefer whites."

Buckner, son of a Confederate general who surrendered to Grant, detailed his objections in writing and they had little to do with worries of competency: "The thing which I have opposed...has been their [black troops] establishment as port troops for the unloading of transports at our docks. The very high wages offered to unskilled labor here would attract a large number of them and cause them to...settle after the war, with the natural result that they would interbreed with the Indians and Eskimos and produce an objectionable race of mongrels which would be a problem from now on." To placate Buckner, it was agreed that black troops would not be allowed near any Alaskan settlements. The promise was adhered to so strictly that very few residents in Fairbanks and Big Delta, Alaska's two major Alcan outposts, ever realized blacks were in the area and press coverage of the sticky situation was not encouraged...

[The troops'] first winter (1942-43) was one of the worst on record... Alexander Powell remembers days as a crane operator for the 97th when temperatures dropped to seventy below. "We wore three pairs of socks at time, with rubber galoshes instead of shoes because the leather would freeze. We had adequate cloth-lined parkas, pants, mittens and heavy underwear, but it still was mighty cold," he recalls. "But I was a young man who felt he had a job to do, and I did it. Walter E. Mason's A company of the 97th built 295 miles of road through stunted forest from Slana, across the Tanana River and then south into Canada. Eighty-five miles of that was corduroy road topped with felled trees--in some places five layers deep to counter the permafrost. Mason and his men bucked winter temperatures as low as seventy degrees below zero, living in tents, existing mainly on dehydrated potatoes, Vienna sausage, Spam and whatever game they could shoot. Mail delivery was infrequent. They worked seven days a week, around the clock in summer, and many went a year or more without leave. Yet morale was high according to the Virginia engineer: "We made about five miles a day, had to move camp every two or three days. Ours was the first cat (bulldozer) to cross the border and everybody climbed on. We were supposed to meet the 18th [Regiment] coming up from the south. When they didn't show it, we kept on going."

Source: Lael Morgan, "Writing Minorities Out of History: Black Builders of the Alcan Highway," Alaska History 7:2 (Fall 1992):1-2, 5-6.


BLACKS, WHITES, ASIANS IN WORLD WAR II HAWAII

The following vignette, taken from a 1993 article authored by Beth Bailey and David Farber, describes the complex racial order that African Americans found themselves in when they served as soldiers, sailors and war workers in Hawaii. Their experience profoundly reshaped thinking about race among whites, blacks and Asians on both the islands and the mainland.


In Hawaii during the war, there was a volatile combination of extreme state power, a complex system of race relations that was not bi-polar and had no established place for African American... Some would use this liminal landscape to construct new paradigms of race and new possibilities for struggle as yet unexplored in mainland America...

Well over a million service personnel and civilian employees of the military...were brought to Hawaii by reason of war. Among those men and women were approximately 30,000 people of African descent--soldiers, sailors, war workers. They came to a place that, before World War II, had no "Negro Problem," in part because few people on the islands recognized that "Negroes" lived in Hawaii. In 1940, according to one estimate by the territorial government, approximately 200 "Negroes of American birth" lived on the islands... Most people on Hawaii did not bring the racist ways of the mainland into there daily lives. They did stereotype one another: many Americans of Japanese ancestry looked down on the Chinese, and often upon the haoles [whites]. The Chinese looked down on the Filipinos. Round and round it went. Each ethnic group had its suspicions of the others and definite hierarchies existed. But such prejudices were not the white heat of the mainland's rigid caste society. The lines were less absolute... It helped that no one group held a majority... Hawaii was much more progressive on the issue of race than the rest of the U.S.

The men and women who came to Hawaii from the mainland were uniformly shocked by what they found. On the streets of Honolulu or in small towns on the Big Island, "white" ness was not the natural condition. All newcomers were surprised, but reactions varied. Some praised what they saw...others were mightily upset by it; still others just confused...

Writing home in private letters to family and friends, wives and sweethearts, black men who had come to Hawaii as servicemen or war workers discussed the possibilities of Hawaii's wartime racial liminality. A shipyard worker wrote: "I thank God often for letting me experience the occasion to spend a part of my life in a part of the world were one can be respected and live as a free man should." Another young man tried to explain to his girlfriend: "Honey, its just as much difference between over here and down there as it is between night and day." He concluded: Hawaii "will make anybody change their minds about living down there." "Down there" was the Jim Crow South, the place about which a third man wrote, "I shall never go back."

White men and women from the mainland also saw the possible implications of Hawaii's racial landscape: "They have come as near to solving the race problem as any place in the world," wrote a nurse. "I'm a little mystified by it as yet but it doesn't bother anyone who had lived here awhile." A teacher found it world shaking: "I have gained here at least the impulse to fight racial bigotry and boogeyism. My soul has been stretched here and my notion of civilization and Americanism broadened."

Not everyone was so inspired. One hardened soul, in Hawaii with her husband and children, wrote the folks: "Down here they have let down the standards, there does not seem to be any race hatred, there is not even any race distinction... I don't want to expose our children too long to these conditions." A white man wrote back home: "Imagine that the South will have some trouble ahead when these black bastards return. Over here they're on the equal with everyone... They're in paradise and no fooling." Others made it clear they did not believe the trouble would keep: "Boy the niggers are sure in their glory over here...they almost expect white people to step off the streets and let them walk by... They are going to overstep their bounds a little too far one of these days and those boys from the South are going to have a little necktie party."

If Hawaii was "paradise"...there was a snake in this paradise, too. "As you know," one man wrote back to the mainland, "most sailors are from Texas and the South. They are most[ly] Navy men here, and they have surely poisoned everyone against the Negro..with tales of Negroes carrying dreadful diseases, being thieves, murderers and downright no good."

* * *

When the 369th Coast Artillery Regiment (The Harlem Hellfighters) were transported to their initial base camp on the little sugar cane railroad, people reacted to them as if they were some kind of invading force. People ran away, frightened of the train full of black men. It didn't take long to figure out what had happened. Local people had been repeatedly warned by white soldiers and sailors from the South that blacks were literally dangerous animals. Local women, in particular, refused to have social relations with African American men. Ernest Golden, a war worker at Pearl Harbor, remembers that women would never sit next to him--or any other black man--on buses. "They had been told by the Southerners...that, first of all, Blacks were not to be trusted. [They] went so far as to say that Blacks had tails, and if they had a baby, the baby would be a monkey and all that sort of garbage. So...you'd get on the bus and sit down and she would make sure that she just got up and left. She just wouldn't let you sit next to her..."

In letters back home, black servicemen fumed about the spread of racial hatred. "They preach to the natives a nasty, poisonous doctrine that we must fight like hell to overcome. They tell the native that we are ignorant dumb, evil, rapers, and troublemakers. They have the native women to a point they are afraid to even speak to our Negro boys."

The responses of the local people to the black malihini (newcomers) were complex and somewhat unpredictable. Although some sociologists at the time speculated that the local population would not accept negroes...in fact local men often lent their support to blacks against whites....

This is not to say that the propaganda of African American inferiority had no effect... Local women wrote frequently of their fears. "I am very scared of these Negro soldiers here in Honolulu. They make my skin shrivel and myself afraid to go near them," wrote a Chinese girl. A young Japanese woman wrote in almost identical terms: "They are so big and dark...Seeing them around while I'm alone gives me the 'goose-flesh.'" Another Japanese woman was a little more reflective about her feelings. After sharing a perfectly uneventful bus ride with four black soldiers she wrote a friend: "Gee, I was very frightened... Funny isn't it how I am about them. One would be that way after hearing lots of nasty things about them."

Some local women recognized the unfairness of local fears. One young woman of Japanese ancestry, writing in a private letter, criticized her peers: "They are going to have a dance for colored boys...only 18 girls are willing to go--such cooperation. Imagine us here talking about color equality and when it come to those things, not enough cooperation. I sure would like to have gone to it...but you know Mother."

Source: Beth Bailey and David Farber, "The 'Double-V' Campaign in World War II Hawaii: African Americans, Racial Ideology, and Federal Power," Journal of Social History 26:4 (Summer 1993:818-821, 825-827.


PORT CHICAGO

The Port Chicago Naval Base, completed in 1942 and located about thirty-five miles northeast of San Francisco, quickly became the major west coast facility for the loading of ammunition for the Pacific Theater. Almost from the beginning of the base, African American naval personnel were the majority of the workforce. On the evening of July 17, 1944, about half of the black stevedores stationed at the facility were loading two ships, the Quinalt Victory and E.A. Bryan when an explosion, the equivalent of a small earthquake, destroyed the ships and dock and leveled the nearby town of Port Chicago. Three hundred twenty men, 202 of them African American, were killed instantly in the explosion. The black sailors killed and wounded at Port Chicago accounted for 15% of all African American naval casualties during World War II. Following the explosion 50 black sailors were put on trial for mutiny when they refused to resume loading the ammunition. The following account, eyewitness Cyril Sheppard, an enlisted man in the barracks during the explosion, describes the first moments of the tragedy.

I was sitting on the toilet--I was reading a letter from home. Suddenly there were two explosions. The first one knocked me clean off... I found myself flying toward the wall. I just threw my hands up like this, then I hit the wall. Then the next one came right behind that, Phoom! Knocked me back on the other side. Men were screaming, the lights went out and glass was flying all over the place. I gout out to the door. Everybody was... that thing had...the whole building was turned around, caving in. We were a mile and a half away from the ships. And so the first thing that came to my mind, I said, 'Jesus Christ, the Japs have hit!' I could have sworn they were out there pounding us with warships or bombing us or something. But one of the officers was shouting, 'It's the ships! It's the ships! So we jumped into one of the trucks and we said let's go down there to see if we can help. We got halfway down there on the truck and stopped. Guys were shouting at the driver, go on down, What the hell are you staying up here for? The driver says, 'Can't go no farther.' See, there wasn't no more docks. Wasn't no railroad. Wasn't no ships. And the water just came right up to...all the way back. The driver couldn't go no farther. Just calm and peaceful. I didn't even see any smoke."

Source: Robert L. Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History (New York: Amistad Press, 1993), p. 58.

BLACK PORTLAND WOMEN AND POST-WAR DISCRIMINATION

In the following account historian Amy Kesselman describes the difficulties African American women faced when the Portland-Vancouver shipyards closed immediately after World War II.

Among the women who had most difficulty adjusting to reconversion were black women and women in the higher age brackets (over thirty-five). In her study of women wage earners in four cities, Lois Helmbold demonstrated that during the Depression younger women who were black and/or over thirty-five were displaced by younger, white workers. During the war older women moved back into the work force, and black women of all ages moved from domestic and service work to industrial work. In the reconversion period, these women...confronted the restoration of prewar conditions.

About half of the black population left the Portland-Vancouver area after the war, and those that remained faced widespread discrimination by employers and unions. The United States Employment Service (USES) did not force employers to hire black workers, because employers threatened to find workers elsewhere. USES officials concluded that it was "unwise and the wrong approach to attempt to force employers to hired colored workers against their will" after thirty firms stopped using USES during the war when they were pressured to hire black workers. Members of the Portland chapter of the Urban League, which had been established during the war, thought that USES workers themselves lacked "racial tolerance" and were not doing enough to change the policies of local industries. Portland, according to Urban League members, was the most bigoted city on the West Coast.

Black women, of course, faced double discrimination. Only two Portland area manufacturing establishments registered with the USES would employ black women: a garment factory and a bag factory that operated two segregated buildings, one for white workers and the other for black workers. The Urban League tried to improve employment prospects for black workers by pressuring unions and employers to end discriminatory practices and by reluctantly acting as an employment agency for black workers. Black women seeking the help of the USES or the Urban League were often urged to take work in domestic service, which "most of them are reluctant to do...because they object to the wage scales and the working conditions." According to the USES, many of the black women looking for work were married and unable to live at their place of employment, a requirement for many domestic jobs.

Margaret Kay Anderson, field secretary for the Women's Bureau reported that "many of the colored women who worked during the war are out of the labor market because they had no intention of working when the war was over." She did not explain how the USES knew that these women had been planning to retire from the work force and were not discouraged by the limited opportunities for black women workers...

Despite efforts to find alternatives, two of the three black women worked as domestics in the postwar period. Audrey Moore, who was the sole support of her child, reported having difficulty finding jobs--a difficulty compounded by being female and black, and by not having a high-school education. Housecleaning, poultry work, and seasonal cannery work were all she could find. Marie Merchant cleaned Pullman cars for a while and then did domestic work for private families. Beatrice Marshall...who had been trained as a machinist but was a victim of racial discrimination in the shipyards, worked at the bag factory until it closed in 1946, when she got a job as a page in the public library...

Source: Amy Kesselman, Fleeting Opportunities; Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver During World War II and Reconversion, (Albany, NY 1990), pp. 114-115, 118.


LAS VEGAS: THE "MISSISSIPPI OF THE WEST"

Las Vegas, the 20th Century gambling Mecca of the nation, was a quintessential boom town. Founded in 1904, by 1960, its population reached 64,405. If Las Vegas appeared different to Americans because it was the "city that never sleeps," it was all too familiar to black Americans as a locality that practiced racial discrimination. Indeed race relations by the time of a World War II influx of African Americans had deteriorated to a point where local residents, many of whom were from the South, dubbed the city, the "Mississippi of the West." In the account below historian John Findlay describes both the rise of racial segregation and discrimination, and its eventual decline in the nation's leading resort city.

Since World War II, southern Nevada had a significant black population. In 1960 the minority accounted for 15% of the people inside the Las Vegas city limits. Virtually all blacks lived in an impoverished section of town known as Westside. For them, there was little chance to escape to outlying subdivisions. During the 1940s and 1950s the segregation of blacks and their relatively low standard of living served as a counterpoint to the glitter and prosperity of the gambling capital.

Contemporary observers tended to explain local racism as an import from the Deep South. Relations between blacks and whites in southern Nevada, however, actually followed the same cycle of accommodation and conflict that characterized earlier frontiers in the United States. Minorities had traditionally encountered less hostility on relatively new and open frontiers, but as each new West became more crowded, tensions between ethnic and racial groups increased. Whites were more likely to invoke prejudices as frontier societies grew more complex and competitive.... All across the American West, blacks, Indians, Latinos, Asians, and other minority peoples had been relegated consistently to less rewarding jobs and less desirable lands once whites began to crowd into frontier regions. Blacks suffered something of the same fate in Las Vegas during the mid-twentieth century.

Blacks coexisted relatively easily with whites in southern Nevada from the founding of the railroad town in 1905 until whites began to throng to the boom town of the 1940s. A quite small percentage of the population before World War II, blacks resided not in a sharply defined district of their own but rather in close proximity to whites in downtown Las Vegas during the 1920s and 1930s. The relative harmony broke down briefly in the early 1930s when blacks began to compete for jobs on Boulder Dam, but after completion of the project relations returned to normal until the tremendous influx of both whites and blacks during the Second World War. Blacks generally lost the ensuing competition for the best jobs and more comfortable housing. Whites, faced with more blacks than ever before, increasingly practiced policies of discrimination and segregation that cemented the plainly subordinate status of the minority. When blacks and whites kept arriving in southern Nevada after the war, amid fears of economic slump and housing shortages, whites continued to restrict their minority to the less rewarding jobs and the most run-down residential district. By 1950 Las Vegas had become a tightly segregated city.... Blacks remained concentrated in an area that was so impoverished that in 1965 it became one of the very first targets of VISTA, the Great Society's domestic Peace Corps program.

At the same time that they confined the minority to Westside residences, whites closed off the resort city to blacks by erecting rigid racial barriers that earned the city comparison to the Deep South. Downtown and Strip establishments generally did not admit black patrons until the late 1950s and early 1960s, so black Las Vegans had to gamble at their own clubs in Westside. Black entertainers like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., when they were permitted to stay in Strip hotels at which they were performing, were sometimes discouraged from mingling with whites or having black friends accompany them on the grounds. Segregation was extended to other public places as well, including theaters, restaurants, swimming pools, and schools.

* * *

The prospects for black Las Vegans began to brighten during the late 1950s and early 1960s at the same time that conditions improved around the country. The quality of life in Westside started to change in 1955 as banks began to lend money to black homeowners and government agencies invested additional funds for rebuilding the run-down district. The coincidental opening of the first interracial hotel, the short-lived Moulin Rouge, indicated a growing interest in black tourists as well. Even greater strides were made, however, once Las Vegans realized that their racial policies tarnished the image of the city in the eyes of a county that was increasingly responsive to demands for civil rights. Exclusionary policies no longer seemed appropriate for a city hoping to be regarded as cosmopolitan. Las Vegans, who had previously been largely unmoved by protests organized by civil rights activists, were much more sensitive to the possible repercussions of a demonstration scheduled for March 1960, by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Major hotels and casinos averted the protest, and the certain bad publicity, by agreeing to desegregate facilities quickly. Conditions for blacks did not improve overnight in Las Vegas, as evidenced by riots that rocked Westside in 1969, but positive changes had been started. Racial barriers would not be permitted to stand in the way of the continuing boom in southern Nevada.

Source: John Findlay, People of Chance: Gambling in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas (New York, 1986), pp. 189-191.