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The life preserver
Story by Damon Hodge and
Photography by Bill Hughes
UNLV’s Claytee White not only collects oral histories about life in Southern Nevada. She empowers others to do the same
On the third floor of UNLV’s Lied Library, tucked in the northwest corner, is Special Collections. Spacious and airy, this place. Art-museum quiet, it conveys importance. Seriousness. Heft. Perhaps it’s because history lives here, in the form of photos and documents, baubles and books that help put into context the life story of a city seemingly forever bracketed by contradictions: Mob-financed past vs. Wall Street-funded present; the desire to be taken seriously (new performing arts center, downtown redevelopment, pursuit of pro sports) vs. the quick rewards of promoting sin (“Strippers: Direct to You”) and schmaltz (think the “Hangover” films).
Special Collections is the home base of UNLV’s Oral History Research Center, helmed by Claytee White, the only director in the center’s 10-year history. Equal parts collector, curator and storyteller, White quarterbacks a team that conducts audio and video interviews of the people who shaped early Las Vegas — people whose surnames grace our public places and private institutions, from the Foleys to the Fertittas.
Her staff also trains people in the art of oral history. During the past decade, they’ve crisscrossed Southern Nevada — Blue Diamond to Boulder City, Green Valley to Summerlin, Mount Charleston to the Frenchman Mountains to Mesquite — collecting stories of pioneers, including women who broke glass ceilings, minorities who toppled segregation, the first dentists and doctors.
“Often times, I meet someone and they tell me that I really need to talk to so-and-so because so-and-so has been here since World War II,” she says. “Those kinds of relationships put me closer and closer to the history.”
The constant learner
White never figured on becoming a university-employed historian, never knew such a career existed. Growing up in Ahoskie, N.C., about 60 miles south of Norfolk, Va., her adolescence revolved around sharecropping.
“All I knew is that no one should ever have to work this hard. So my plan was to do well in school, go to college, get out of there and be a school teacher. Needless to say, I’m thrilled to be doing what I’m doing now. I’m learning so much about Las Vegas.”
And White is constantly learning, be it through training a group of Blue Diamond residents how to conduct interviews, studying musicians who played with the greats of Vegas’ golden era or chronicling the lives of Hurricane Katrina survivors living here. One day, she’s in the field conducting interviews. The next day, she’s visiting historic sites and scribbling endless notes. Other days are devoted to research or mapping strategies to attack a project. Busy, busy, busy. Her pace seems to act as a countervailing force against the perception that Las Vegas frequently discards its history, a perception largely fueled by the casino implosions of the ’90s. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” White says.
[HEAR MORE: Learn about the John S. Park oral history project on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
Look at our buildings: The Mormon Fort on Washington Avenue (built in 1855); the Golden Gate Casino on Fremont Street (1906); the original Las Vegas High School on Seventh Street (1930); and the federal Post Office now housing the Mob Museum (1933). Look at neighborhoods: railroad cottages between Second and Fourth streets and Clark and Garces avenues (built in 1910); West Las Vegas (which boomed shortly after the end of World War II).
“The city may implode a building, but it saves everything else,” White points out. “And the implosions are only on the Strip. Downtown looks a lot like it did back in its heyday, and so do many other parts of town. We shouldn’t confuse imploding a building with destroying our history. Las Vegas has done a decent job of preserving its history, but there’s so much more to learn and uncover.”
Getting the story
Conducting an oral history interview is about more than just a straightforward Q&A — and doing it right can mean the difference between striking out and striking gold. Successful oral historians establish rapport with their subjects. White’s style is more conversation than interview. To make subjects comfortable, she arrives early and thanks them for contributing to history. Active listening is key. Eyes front. Head high. Lean in. Ask open-ended questions, paraphrase. Use technology (record the interview) and old-fashioned reportorial skills (take notes).
“I want people to know that what they are saying is important to this project and to research. People are often surprised with what they tell me. Later on, they’ll say, ‘I didn’t know I shared all that.’ I’ve been at kitchen tables all throughout the valley, listening to some great stories from interesting people. I walk in as a stranger, but I leave as a friend.”
“People would be surprised at how much history there is here and that many of the people who made that history are alive, or their families are still here, from the Cashman family to families that helped build the Strip and the gaming industry to neighborhoods like Rancho Circle,” says Jarmilla McMillan-Arnold, who serves with White on the City of Las Vegas’ Historic Preservation Commission. “And Claytee is doing her part to help preserve their stories for students, young people and future generations.” (McMillan-Arnold is part of that rich story: She’s the daughter of Dr. James McMillan, the first African-American dentist in Las Vegas — who was recruited from Detroit by Las Vegas’ first African-American doctor, Charles I. West.)
And while conducting oral history interviews is an art, it isn’t arcane. White also teaches others interested in preserving their own communities’ story how to discover the living history in their midst.
After living in Las Vegas since 1967, Pat van Betten and her husband retired to Blue Diamond in 1999. They were eager to immerse themselves in the community and wanted to plumb its history. Finding White, she says, was a “gold mine.”
“We knew we wanted to gather oral history and didn’t know how to do it, and so we fumbled along,” van Betten says. “All of a sudden, I get this call from Claytee in 2003. She came out. She met with us and taught us how to do it. She role modeled for us how to do the questioning, how to prepare, how to put someone at ease, how to make the process user-friendly for the person being interviewed and the person interviewing. Now, we have more than 70 oral histories archived.”
In 2008, Blue Diamond’s history committee produced a Blue Diamond cookbook with snippets of the area’s oral history. Two years later, they presented a history of the area at the Southwest Oral History Association’s 2010 meeting in Boulder City.
“It was like a reader’s theater. People would read excerpts of their oral histories,” van Betten says. “We’re able to do all of this because what Claytee taught us.”
Back to the future — and back
White was working on a doctorate at the College of William & Mary when UNLV opened the Oral History Research Center in 2003 and she was selected as its first director. Since she was familiar with Las Vegas and UNLV (where she earned her master’s degree in history), the job was a natural fit. “I loved Las Vegas and wanted to come back. I got a taste for the richness of Las Vegas history while I was here.”
For 10 years, White has sought to better capture that richness — and make it more accessible. “There was lots of oral history done here from the ’70s and ’80s. Back then, UNLV professor Dr. Ralph Roske had his students go into the community each semester to find people to interview. They interviewed the Foley family, the Von Tobel family, Bob Bailey and other people who’d been in Vegas during its formative years. The interviews were donated to Special Collections. I want to build on that.”
Fellow historian Dr. Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada, says White’s work is an integral part of contextualizing Las Vegas for locals and visitors alike.
“Claytee went to the college of William & Mary, but she can’t talk to the people who built the community because they’re long gone,” Green said. “I did my dissertation on Abraham Lincoln, but obviously I can’t talk to him. Las Vegas is unusual in that many of the people who helped build this city, who were here when this community developed, are still here. And we can talk to them. And she does.”
White will be doing a lot more talking in the months and years to come. Currently piquing her interest are the historical experiences of African-Americans and the fast-growing Hispanic and Asian-American communities in Las Vegas. She’s intrigued by the connection between Las Vegas and Cuba, gaming moguls here and in Cuba, pre-Castro.
“(At the center) we want to be more detailed, more thorough, more intimate with the history of this city.”
As for her compiling her own family history, well, White hasn’t quite gotten around to it. Bits and pieces are there, but not the full-picture of her heritage. Living here makes it tricky, but White hasn’t ruled out training her own family members to put the puzzle together. “That could be a fun project.”
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