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Recollections of a ‘Westside Slugger’

February 12, 2019 by  
Filed under Feature

Recollections of a ‘Westside Slugger’

Joe Neal reflects on a life spent fighting for equal representation for African-Americans in Nevada.

To many people in the Las Vegas area, Joe Neal will always be known as “The Senator.” After serving nearly three decades in the Nevada Legislature, he is widely-regarded as an iconic voice of the people.

As a lawmaker — the first African-American elected to the Nevada State Senate — Neal is a history-maker who had a front row seat to the state’s modern political history. And his fascinating life story and recollections are captured in his recently-released biography, “The Westside Slugger,” written by journalist John Smith.

Known as a tribune for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, Neal worked his entire career to enhance quality of life for working families in Nevada — and along the way, he laid a path for more African-Americans to be elected to public office.

Born in Mounds, Louisiana, Neal graduated from Southern University in 1963 with a degree in political science. He originally came to Las Vegas because his mother and brother had already moved there for better employment opportunities.

“After I finished high school, I joined my mother and brother in Las Vegas,” he recalled. “Upon my arrival in Las Vegas, I was disappointed because all I saw was desert — and I was used to seeing green grass and trees in Louisiana. So, after four months, I joined the Air Force. My mother worked for the Desert Inn Hotel, and many black people migrated to Las Vegas from Louisiana because of the job opportunities. Back in the early 1940s, Boulder Dam was being built and … employment recruiters would come to Louisiana encouraging people to move to Las Vegas to get a good job, and they gave transportation tickets to people who were willing to relocate. People in Louisiana thought Las Vegas was a gold mine — and it was, as it relates to better wages.”

Neal says that when many African-Americans came to Las Vegas for employment opportunities in the 1940s and 1950s, they didn’t realize that they would have to live in a tent city in the Historic Westside.

“Yes, the Westside tent city was the place in Las Vegas where many black people lived when they arrived to work,” he said. “Eventually there was a manor built in Henderson where some people stayed.

The manors were segregated — one for white people, one for black people. It was a black architect who built it, named Paul Revere Williams. He also built the Carver House on Jackson Avenue that was in the Historic Westside.”

Neal enlisted in the Air Force in 1954, returned to Las Vegas, and left once again in 1956 for an Air Force base in New Mexico. Executives from Nevada’s Test Site and Area 51 eventually asked him to come back to work in Vegas.

“Since I had family in Las Vegas, I came back and stayed at an Air Force base in Indiana Springs,” he said. “At that time, black people didn’t have fair housing in Las Vegas — and my mother and brother were living in a home on C Street in the Historic Westside. Black people could not go inside the casinos, and in 1961 Mike Miller became the president of the local NAACP. There was a big push for equal housing and integration. Bob Bailey was the Equal Rights Commissioner — and when Martin Luther King Jr. visited Las Vegas, the casino owners and power brokers were scared as hell because he was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and a respected civil rights leader in the South at the time. Casino owners were afraid that Las Vegas would be targeted for its discrimination practices and receive bad publicity. So Hank Greenspun and some other white Vegas notables met with the NAACP, Dr. Charles I. West, Dr. James McMillan, and others within the black community to try to do something to integrate the Strip and then drive people to go see the shows. They still didn’t hire black people within the casino in the lucrative jobs such as cocktail waitress and car attendant — at that time those were the moneymaking jobs.”

Neal returned to Louisiana in 1959 to attend Southern University, which was the site of major demonstrations for equal rights — including lunch counter sit-ins that sparked Supreme Court cases that led to desegregation. He majored in political science, and a statement that was said to him while at Southern University ignited his passion to make a positive change for black people.

“I remember telling a gentleman, who was the president of the Negro Teachers Association, that I was majoring in political science. He looked at me confused and said, ‘Why are you studying political science and you can’t even vote?’ I said to myself, ‘He is right,’ because in Louisiana black people couldn’t vote at that time. That started my political activity.”

Neal eventually came back to Las Vegas, and got involved with the Nevada Voters League started by attorney Charles Keller. He noticed how the white power structure in Las Vegas would select candidates for seats in the legislature. It was at that time that Neal knew he wanted to make a change by assisting candidates to be elected by and for the people.

“The black population was growing very fast in the late 1960s and 1970s, and I knew that black people would overcome many of the discrimination practices in Las Vegas,” said Neal. “I noticed how the City of Las Vegas got together with a home builder to build the Regal Estates and Valley View neighborhoods close to North Las Vegas, in order to pull the black population out. I saw this happening, so I moved into North Las Vegas because I knew black people would have mass voting power. There were two men running for the Assembly of City of North Las Vegas. So, I ran for the Assembly in 1970 with the black community supporting my candidacy. I ran on a platform to reapportion the legislature for African-American political representation. I met with local Republicans to assist with a bill to reapportion the area, so that black people would be able to vote for who they wanted. The bill passed and as a result it put African-Americans in a State Senate seat, two Assembly seats, a School Board representative, and a County Commissioner seat.”

His brand of activism is not dead, says Neal.

“People need to speak out if you want things to change for the better,” he said. “You have to let people know who are in power and in policy-making positions. You have to let them know how you think and how you feel about things. As a result, they will have to acknowledge you. I say speak out. I never had a problem about speaking out. I had to speak out, even though they called me “loud.” But yet and still they knew I was very factual. One of the things they knew: if I gave you my word on something, I kept my word.”

“The Westside Slugger” is available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.

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