One of the things I’m most proud of during my 50-plus years as an adopted Nevadan is my service in the administration of Gov. Grant Sawyer, who championed civil rights and tough gaming control policies. A recent column by John Emerson, pastor emeritus of Reno’s historic First United Methodist Church, reminded me of Sawyer’s admirable achievements on civil rights in the Silver State.
As a surviving “Sawyer Boy,” I’m proud to say I played a minor role in the desegregation of Nevada casinos in the 1960s, when our state was frequently referred to as “the Mississippi of the West.” “Grant Sawyer deserves to be called a ‘state treasure’ for his courageous leadership ... (in) the cause of racial justice,” Emerson wrote, and I couldn’t agree more. On the issue of race relations, Gov. Sawyer was way ahead of his time, a true visionary.
In the early 1960s African-Americans couldn’t gamble in most of Nevada’s largest casinos. They were relegated to smaller, less visible casinos like Bill Fong’s New China Club in Reno and the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas. When Sammy Davis, Jr. first appeared on the Vegas Strip, he couldn’t stay in hotels where he was performing. But later actor/singer Frank Sinatra, the leader of the so-called “Rat Pack,” insisted Davis stay in the same hotels he did.
Shortly after I joined the Sawyer administration in late 1963 as public information officer and press spokesman for the Nevada Gaming Commission and Gaming Control Board, the governor directed his chief aide, Dick Ham, along with Ham’s capable sidekick Bob Faiss, and Gaming Control Board Chairman Edward A. Olsen to end racial discrimination in Nevada casinos.
The public story is the state’s newly created Equal Rights Commission employed moral suasion to desegregate the casinos, but the truth is slightly different. What actually happened is after most major casinos voluntarily complied with Sawyer’s desegregation campaign, a few holdouts remained. One of the last casinos to comply was the El Capitan in Hawthorne, whose racist owners stubbornly refused to allow African-Americans equal access to their casino. In fact, they ejected black patrons on sight.
That’s when Ed Olsen, acting on orders from the governor, confronted El Cap’s owners head-on. Olsen called the casino manager one day and informed him he had just ejected one of the Gaming Control Board’s undercover enforcement agents, an African-American.
To my knowledge we never had any black undercover agents but no matter, El Cap’s owners got the message and African-Americans were free to gamble anywhere in our state. It was a proud moment for Gov. Sawyer and his gaming control team, on which I was a bit player.
When journalists questioned me about how the casinos had been desegregated, I duly credited the governor, the Legislature and the Equal Rights Commission. But the truth is that casinos opened their doors to African-Americans because of a phone call or two from my late friend and boss, Ed Olsen, who was my role model and mentor in those years. One footnote: both of us had worked for the Associated Press (AP) in Carson City before joining state government.
A few old-timers will remember those milestones in Nevada’s colorful legal gambling history. Among them are longtime friends Mike Fondi, Gary Sheerin, Dwayne Kling, Ann Cameron and veteran journalists Warren Lerude and Cy Ryan, who’s still reporting from the Capitol for the Las Vegas Sun. There aren’t many of us left but we still recall the story of how Gov. Sawyer and Ed Olsen desegregated Nevada casinos in the 1960s.
Guy W. Farmer worked for Governor Sawyer during the period 1963-66.