A ‘Bridge Builder’ in an Era of Deep Racial Segregation

Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

When Frank Sinatra began visiting Las Vegas, it was the Mississippi of the West, a fully segregated Jim Crow town. Black entertainers entered and exited through back doors of the main hotels. They could only stay in Westside—dubbed “the side”—where a 1939 city ordinance limited blacks to residing, and whose shacks often lacked electricity and plumbing.

Having felt the pervasive sting of anti-Italian prejudice in his youth, Sinatra was keen to injustice. He donated often to the NAACP. He met Sammy Davis Jr. in 1941, when white artists rarely mingled with black peers. He would befriend and sing with Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, too. He toted his troops to the short-lived Moulin Rouge, the city’s first integrated casino and hotel in 1955. The Sands, influenced by Sinatra’s ire, became a relative paragon in advancement. By 1957, Nat King Cole played the Copa Room, slept in the hotel and, like anyone else, enjoyed all of its amenities. The Moulin Rouge Agreement, opening every major property to black customers, was inked in March 1960.

“Long before it was politically correct, Sinatra treated blacks with dignity and respect,” wrote Laura S. Washington, a black writer for the Chicago Tribune who was raised on her parents’ Sinatra LPs. In 1944, Sinatra altered the first word—a racial epithet—of the verse of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s original 1927 lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” to “here we work …” “A brilliant correction,” wrote Frank: The Voice author James Kaplan. Sinatra detested the epithet. He never pried into daughter Nancy’s dating habits, but he threatened to break her back if he ever discovered her associating with a bigot.

Some Copa Room antics of the crooner and his pals were tasteless. He played before a mixed audience in a supposedly independent republic of apartheid-era South Africa, and had subsequent dates in Europe protested and canceled. For all of Sinatra’s flaws, however, Washington recalled his 1958 feature for Ebony in which he wrote that a friend, to him, has no race, no class and belongs to no minority, that affection, mutual respect and a feeling of having something in common fuels his friendships.

For his time and place, Washington called Sinatra “a bridge builder,” as timeless as they are necessary.