Updated February 21, 2023 - 11:50 am
Pamela Goynes-Brown remembers playing outside the old North Las Vegas City Hall when her father, who served on the City Council, would take his children to work.
She could not have imagined then that she would one day make history as Nevada’s first Black mayor.
Theron Goynes was the first Black man to serve as a member of the City Council, and also as mayor pro tem, a legacy later picked up by his daughter.
“Growing up we were always at City Hall,” Goynes-Brown, the newly elected mayor of North Las Vegas, told the Review-Journal this week. “It was the old building across the street, because we could play on the grass while they were in meetings.”
“But sometimes he would make us come inside and listen to it,” she added. “And I don’t think we realized then that we were actually learning.”
She said she owes her life’s trajectory to her parents, whom she considers her role models, and who until recently attended every City Council meeting. Recently, they’ve tuned in to the live-streams.
Decades after Theron Goynes’ own bid for mayor fell short, the now 93-year-old man sat next to the new mayor as she gave her emotional inaugural speech.
While stricken with dementia, Goynes experiences moments of clarity in which he expresses pride for being father to the mayor of the city the family moved to in 1964.
Naomi Goynes, the mayor’s mother, recently stopped growing emotional about her daughter’s historic achievement, Goynes-Brown said.
“No, I’ll take it back,” Goynes Brown quipped Wednesday. “She cried about it yesterday.”
It was her mother who, in a calm, but stern demeanor, pushed Goynes-Brown to go to college, even when she thought she was done with education after graduating from high school.
“You don’t have to go to college,” she remembers hearing. “But you can’t stay here.”
Even then, Goynes-Brown could’ve been a professional concert pianist, a subject she studied at Prairie View A&M University before she changed her major to music education, following in her parents’ footsteps of becoming a Clark County educator.
Her class of 1984 graduation took place on a Sunday, “and I literally had a job back here in the Clark County School District that Monday,” Goynes-Brown said.
After serving more than 30 years as a teacher and school administrator, her brother convinced her to run for office. The tight-knit family worked together to make it happen.
Long overdue historic moment
Goynes-Brown reflected on her father’s failed bid for mayor, and the city’s changing demographics.
“We’re in a different time right now,” she said. “And so we embrace each other’s differences and likenesses… accepting that anyone can serve, anyone can run no matter who you are, what you are.”
Asked what Black History Month means to her, Goynes-Brown simply stated: “everything in the world.”
“It’s a time to reflect on African Americans that have come before me,” she said. “I’m talking about generations and generations, their accomplishments and how they helped pave the way for where I am today. Because without all the struggles that they have gone through … even when I didn’t understand them, all that paved the way for me to be where I am right now.”
She said she might never learn why it took so long for Nevada, which became a state in 1864, to elect a Black mayor.
“But it has happened, and I want to celebrate that success and keep moving on so those who come after me say that, ‘you know, this could be you as well: you work hard, you have a strong belief and you stay true to your faith and try to stay true to yourself,’” she said.
UNLV history professor Michael Green said he’s pondered the same questions.
A couple of decades ago, he said, he set out to find out how many Black candidates have run for mayor in Nevada.
His research only came up with one: Theron Goynes.
“North Las Vegas might have been called the city most likely to (make history),” he said. “In part because it has had a significant African American population.”
The city would have elected a Black mayor no matter who won in November. State Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, was the other general-election candidate. Still, Goynes-Brown got 65.7 percent of the vote.
“It’s sad to say that the history here has generally been, with exceptions, that Black candidates are far more likely to win in Black districts or wards,” Green said.
But just blaming racism would be oversimplifying history, though there has been some of that paired with political alliances that have historically hampered racial progress, Green said.
“I like to think, and I do think things are better,” Green said. “But I think we still have a long way to go.”
North Las Vegas Councilman Isaac Barron said that splitting the city into wards helped bring better representation.
“I think, by and large, she won a very clear majority, and that meant people from across the spectrum in North Las Vegas … it was a broad spectrum of people who recognized her leadership.”
‘She could do this’
By all accounts, Goynes-Brown had a near perfect upbringing.
Her parents moved from Utah to pursue education careers in Clark County.
Goynes-Brown, her sister and brother had a Baptist church upbringing, Kimberly Goynes, her older sister, told the Review-Journal. “We went to school together, did sports together, traveled together, shopped together,” she said.
Since a young age, Goynes-Brown has excelled at every goal she’s pursued.
From soccer to music, Goynes Brown always took it to the next level, “always rose to the top in expertise,” said Kimberly Goynes, who also is a retired educator.
Because of that, Kimberly Goynes knew her sister could win a mayoral race, thinking, “she could do this; she could do this.”
The sisters attended the same university and roomed together, and while Goynes-Brown was younger. “She brought me in” to their sorority, and continues to be a decisive role model, motivational, inspirational and humble, Kimberly Goynes said.
Kimberly Goynes recalled the election night victory, when the three siblings put their hands together and uttered their family motto: “We are one.”
Goynes-Brown is also a fishing aficionado, who enjoys large family gatherings, where they cook comfort food and watch football or basketball, and she enjoys quiet time playing the piano at home, or reading when she can keep her eyes open, she said.
Her two adult sons are immensely proud of their mother, Kimberly Goynes said.
North Las Vegas is in good hands, Barron said about his longtime colleague.
“I like to measure twice and cut once before making decisions,” he said. “The mayor, she’s more deliberate than that. She measures things from every angle possible, and once she’s made a decision, it’s probably the best decision.”
He noted that he and Goynes Brown still live in the same neighborhoods they grew up in.
“We understand what it means to be a North Las Vegan, we understand what it means to have (to act on) certain things that are really important to our friends and to our neighbors.”
“We don’t just commute into where we work,” he said. “It’s actually a part of who we are.”
Barron said Goynes-Brown is a dedicated hard worker who is always smiling and who has a “very positive” attitude despite how tired she may be.
“I know that she has a whole stack that she has to go through every day,” he said. “These things, they can kind of wear on you.”
Barron knows North Las Vegas can “always count on her to be the voice of reason.” She was the city’s soothing voice for afflicted constituents during the pandemic, he said.
And when Barron invites her to a Latino-oriented event, she’s always happy to attend, he said.
“I deeply respect her,” he said.
“Some day when we’re both no longer mayor or council person, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d have dinner at her home,” he said. “And I know I would be very honored to have her at my house to have a bite to eat, or somewhere in the community — of course, somewhere in North Las Vegas.”