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Oral history collection shares voices of Las Vegas history

For more than 15 years, Claytee White has been hearing stories of Southern Nevada’s history told directly by the people who made it.

Sure, it’s part of her job as director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries. But it’s White’s passion for history — along with that track record of having talked with so many history-makers — that has made White, as Michael Green puts it, “the pivot around which all of it turns. And because of that, Claytee has developed this well of knowledge that is unparalleled.”

“She is either the starting point or the endpoint, depending on what you want to go to her for, because she can lead you to the people who made the history, or she can explain the history,” added Green, an associate history professor at UNLV.

Another quality that contributes to White’s popularity as a go-to source for reporters, researchers, professors, teachers and historians: her disposition.

“It’s hard not to get along with Claytee,” Green said.

White, hearing all of this, laughs. She figures that whatever knowledge she has about Southern Nevada and its history is just the lucky product of having been “in the room with all of these people who did all of these great things in Las Vegas.”

Poverty and segregation

White grew up in Ahoskie, North Carolina, in what she describes as abject poverty.

“My parents were sharecroppers, which means we did not own anything,” she said. “We did not own the house we were in, we did not own the animals on the farm, we did not own the tractor. We did the work and we provided the labor.

“So I did everything. I chopped cotton, I picked cotton, I worked in tobacco, I worked in peanuts. I’m talking about being in the fields from sun to sun and hot summer days.”

And, of course, “I grew up in a segregated society,” said White, who recalls her interactions with white people as “very limited” and remembers facing discrimination in forms both overt and subtle as a daily reality.

“I remember water fountains would be ‘colored’ and ‘white.’ I remember my mom not being able to try on a hat in a certain store — all stores, but a certain store — and I remember ‘colored’ bathrooms and ‘white’ bathrooms,” White said.

Leaving home

White’s mother was determined that her eight children graduate from high school and that her daughter go to college. While her brothers started new lives in the North after graduation, White used loans and grants to enroll in North Carolina Central University. But after her sophomore year, White, tired of school and seeking “nicer things,” moved to Washington with a few friends.

There, White got a job working at the telephone company. Two years later, she moved to Los Angeles and eventually got an office job at a CPA firm, working during the day and attending college at night. There, she finished her final two undergraduate years and earned a degree in sociology.

It was in Los Angeles that for the first time she “interacted with white people on any kind of real basis,” said White, who found the adjustment at times strange.

“People had dogs and cats in the house, and I could not believe it,” she said, smiling. “Dogs and cats have a purpose on the farm. Cats made sure rats weren’t in barns where we had to work, and with dogs, you took them hunting. Everybody had a purpose, so to bring a dog or cat into the house was like, ‘Why would you ever do that?’ ”

But White also had brought with her no preconceived notions of race. Her own limited childhood interactions with white people and her Baptist church upbringing had taught her that “not all of one group is bad and not all of one group is good. We knew better. We knew during the civil rights movement that we watched on television that there were white people helping that movement.”

On to Las Vegas

White moved to Las Vegas in 1992.

“The weather was good, even better than Los Angeles,” she said. “And I had no desire ever to live in the east again.”

She worked a few unmemorable jobs and, in 1994, began taking classes at UNLV, entering the school’s graduate history program, where she learned how to do oral history interviews. Joanne Goodwin, a UNLV history professor, recalled White as an “always curious, always diligent” student.

According to Goodwin, White created while studying at UNLV what is to this day “the central work on African-American women in the casino and hotel industry. That was based on a lot of oral history that she conducted while still a graduate student.”

“She was a total groundbreaker and has gone on, through her collection of oral history, to expand that study greatly, so now she is the source of information not only about history but African-American history in the valley.”

After subsequent moves to Virginia to work on her doctorate and North Carolina to care for her mother, White returned to Las Vegas in 2003 to become charter director of the Oral History Research Center.

White said the program so far has about 4,000 oral histories of Southern Nevadans, including governors, civil rights leaders, hotel workers, union organizers and entertainers. It also has created projects about such topics as the African-American experience here and the development of Southern Nevada’s Jewish community, and it recently began a project exploring Southern Nevada’s Latin American community.

White said the thread that connects the varied voices in the center’s collection is complexity. And given the arc of her own life, White may be the perfect person to pull all of the threads together.

“I know what complexity looks like,” she joked.

But, White said, “everything that has happened to me in my life allows me to be right where I am today. Everything — the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, everything — allows me to be right where I am today, and I’m grateful for it.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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