The faces of Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. welcome visitors just inside the back entrance of the West Las Vegas Public Library. Their images sparkle with vitality.
There is no proper way to write the names of those great American entertainers without also mentioning that there was a time they weren’t welcome in polite Las Vegas society. Which is to say, white society.
African-American stars once worked on the Strip and packed showrooms to the rafters, but were forced to sleep on the Westside. This town was known scornfully as "The Mississippi of the West." Historians note with pride the progress that’s been made, but the civil rights movement blossomed late in Southern Nevada.
Whether the spirits of Horne and Davis and generations of African-Americans past smiled upon this first Tuesday in November 2008, I can only speculate. But the joy on 81-year-old Erma T. Singleton’s face was unmistakable.
To live so long and see such a sight: an African-American presidential candidate capable of uniting the nation and winning its highest office. It wasn’t something a black girl from Tallulah, La., would have dared dream about when she moved with her family to Nevada in 1955.
"When I came here, black people couldn’t work at the hotels," Singleton said. "They could work, but had to stay at the back doors. They couldn’t eat at the counters."
Change has come gradually, at times begrudgingly and at a great cost. But there she was, sitting with her daughter, Janet Singleton, just outside the polling place, in a better America — but one facing immense challenges.
"I’m 81 years old, and I’ve never, ever seen it this bad," she said. "You know what? People with money, people without money, all are feeling it. I think there needs to be change. I just feel like, if it doesn’t stop, something drastic is going to happen."
The idea African-Americans would be inclined to vote for "one of their own" is one of the clichés of this election season. In my experience, none of the African-American voters I’ve interviewed in recent months saw the world in such simplistic terms. They all expressed pride, but none pined for a hero. Like other Americans tested by trying times, they’re looking for help out of this mess.
Singleton’s daughter, Janet, grew up in a Las Vegas in transition. For her, Sen. Barack Obama isn’t a savior, but he represents the best chance to help a nation in great economic distress.
"My feeling is that he’ll do a great job," she said. "And it’s not because he’s black, and it’s not because he’s not white, but I want the person who’s most qualified. And I feel like at this time he is the most qualified. I really feel like, given the chance, he will make a big change.
"I hope he brings the nation together. I’ve seen a change already. I’ve seen a lot of African-Americans and a lot of Hispanics out voting, and I’ve seen a lot of white voters come out. It has brought us together."
For 67-year-old African-American Beverly Hannon, the prospect of an Obama presidency is grand. But what she really needs is help with her health care. The costs have risen faster than her income.
"At my age, I’m glad to see this type of election come by," she said.
Her focus is on Medicare.
Longtime local Josie Gammage finished voting and downplayed the race issue. Fact is, most African-Americans are registered Democrats and would be expected to vote for the Democrat.
"Really, every election is important," she said. "It has nothing to do with color or creed. It has to do with what the president is going to do for the country. So I’m not going by color. I’m going by if there’s going to be a difference, if he’s going to make a difference.
"I vote because it’s the thing to do. I vote for the man, not for the economy because either way it will work itself out."
That’s faith and realism on display.
"I go to church," she said. "I believe in God."
On a glorious first Tuesday in November filled with promise and possibility, there was abundant hope America’s tomorrows would be better than its yesterdays.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.