It is the neon we see first, and within it the glitter of leisure and consumption. Folk have long traveled from far and wide to bask in its glow. The Paiute took the journey before the lights.
Coming down from the mountains to set up winter camp in the valley, they hunted and fished here, cultivated rice, and bathed in the natural springs. Each migration—from the Spanish scouts who as part of the Armijo expedition named us Las Vegas, “The Meadows,” to the Mormon missionaries, and prospecting settlers and gangsters that followed—signaled not only a change of season, but the promise of a kind of erasure, a starting again.
For people of color journeying out of the southern reaches of the U.S., the first glimmers of light promised an escape from markers of racial prejudice and, perhaps, race itself. Ida B. Wells, whose reportage on the scourge of violence against Blacks in the South led to the Anti-Lynching Laws of 1900, along with ministers from their pulpits, encouraged Black families to move west. Many journeyed here in the Great Migration that began in 1916, when more than 6 million African-Americans relocated North from the rural south. Then in the post-war boom of 1946, the Hoover Dam began construction and many more Black families began to see our growing region as the Paiute once had—an oasis.
As they took the journey, early Black Las Vegans left behind established meccas of Black culture in D.C., Richmond, Charlotte, and Atlanta. A century after the migration, those they left behind imagine a life in Las Vegas stripped of color, consciousness and connection. It is hard to believe that in this desert crafted to pick pocket culture, a Black identity can flourish, find its bedrock under the neon. It has. Like the volcanic rock after which this project is named, it continues to form, to crystallize into the rare and unbreakable.