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Bob Bailey died recently. He lived eighty-seven years. But when you look at his life story, the first question you might think is, he must have lived a lot longer, because he did so much. And so much of what he did affects us still.
He was born on Valentine’s Day, 1927, in Detroit, and raised in Cleveland. His name was William H. Bailey. He had a cousin named Bill who apparently inspired an old song, “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.” Young William Bailey took the nickname Bob when he went into show business, where one of his jobs included working with another of his cousins: Pearl, who headlined many times in Las Vegas.
Before that, though, Bob Bailey carved out his own career. He was attending historically black Morehouse College when bandleader Benny Goodman saw him. He suggested that Bailey audition to sing with Count Basie’s orchestra. He got the job and spent several years touring and recording with Basie before trying to break into radio and television in the early 1950s.
He would make it, but through an unusual route. In 1955, the Moulin Rouge was scheduled to open in Las Vegas. The hotel’s show producer, Clarence Robinson, knew him. He asked Bailey to serve as the master of ceremonies and to perform in the show. Anna Bailey, Bob’s wife, also appeared in the show.
The Moulin Rouge was only open for about six months, but among its many historical contributions, it turned the Baileys into Las Vegans. Bob became the host of a show on Channel 8, and thus the first African American television host in Las Vegas … or co-host, since he worked with Alice Key, who also would be active in Nevada’s civil rights movement. Bob Bailey later moved to Channel 13, and was a disc jockey at KENO radio.
He also became active with a growing cohort of local civil rights leaders. He and Anna became friends with the first African American doctor in Las Vegas, Charles West; the first African American dentist, James McMillan; and other longtime residents building a movement … businesspeople, ministers, teachers, nurses, porters and maids. Bailey was active in fashioning the Moulin Rouge Agreement of 1960. That led to African Americans being allowed to eat, gamble, and stay in Strip and downtown hotel-casinos.
In 1958, Bailey and other civil rights leaders were active in the governor’s campaign of Grant Sawyer, who vowed to support their efforts—and he did. He eventually got the legislature to approve the creation of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and later named Bailey to chair it. He held hearings, conducted investigations, and encouraged public pressure—and, ultimately, legislation. After Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Nevada legislature followed with its own version of that bill the next year.
Bailey also was an entrepreneur par excellence. He ran the Manpower Program, which helped the poor and minorities get jobs. He ran a dealers school and a communications school for minorities. He built business centers, apartments, and a nightclub. During the George H.W. Bush administration, he served as director of the Minority Business Development Agency for the Department of Commerce. Bob Bailey went on to receive all kinds of honors, from a doctoral degree to the naming of a middle school for him and his wife. But Bob Bailey’s monument is his family, his life, and, for the rest of us, the progress he helped us all make.