The Oral History Research Center at UNLV finds, collects, and documents the history of Las Vegas through personal stories—from city founders to the children of politicians, from a mechanic’s son who remembers his father’s shop on Main Street, or from a casino employee at the MGM Grand the day of the fire in 1981. These oral histories give a voice to Las Vegas’ past and shed light on its present and future.
Officially, the Center has been collecting these stories for 10 years and, to celebrate, it’s reconnecting with the residents who helped create the diverse collection. The first event to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Oral History Research Center, a panel discussion held in May, hosted attorneys who practiced in various decades to talk about the black legal community in Las Vegas. Attracting many guests, including some of the valley’s most respected judges and legal professionals, this special gathering reflected on challenges, change and progress that their work helped bring about.
Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center, engaging the audience at the panel discussion held in May.
Rachel Anderson, moderator for the event and Associate Professor of Law at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law shared, “I wouldn’t be in this privileged position if it weren’t for the people in this room and on this panel.” Anderson is optimistic and hopeful for the future of documenting the history of Las Vegas knowing that “these individual oral histories gives us access to a level of refinement and detail academically that is exceptional in its depth, breadth and community-centered nature. They are guides for the future. The fact that the library is creating space for this kind of work is very important.”
Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center, believes this is an excellent time to engage in panel discussions and collect oral histories to hear history first hand from the people who lived it. White observed that the Center has a unique opportunity since “we can talk about events that happened in the ‘30s and ‘40s because there are still people with us who can talk about them. It’s first-hand knowledge. We’re collecting history from the bottom up. Everyone has a role they can play in this process.”
The first oral history program in Nevada began in 1965 at the University of Nevada, Reno. Sponsored by the state, the program collected histories largely from Northern Nevada. In the 1970s, history professor Ralph Roske and his students began collecting oral histories of Southern Nevada pioneers such as Rex Bell and the Von Tobel family. White says this project provided the Oral History Research Center at UNLV a “good, firm foundation.”
In the 1990s, UNLV’s History Department trained graduate students and professors in collecting oral histories. White, a student at that time, learned everything she could about collecting, preserving, and cataloging oral histories. When the Center opened in UNLV Libraries Special Collections in 2003, she was hired as its director. As White celebrates 10 years in her role, she says “I hope this part of my life goes on for 10 more years, and the Oral History Research Center goes on forever because it does such great work.”
Today, the Oral History Research Center provides valuable information not found anywhere else and its collections aren’t solely for those interested in the Las Vegas Strip or locals investigating their family past. Researchers know the Center’s goal is to record the communities and cultures of Las Vegas from many angles by capturing diverse voices and perspectives on events through the documentation and collection of individual eyewitness accounts.
White says Las Vegas history wasn’t just written by the movers and shakers. All its residents, natives and transplants alike, contributed to the city’s forward momentum. “Their oral histories put a voice to your research. Students and historians secure valuable gems from each interview,” White adds. “We have researchers from all over the world interested in Las Vegas and not just the gaming aspect of our city.”
Some of the Center’s most acclaimed projects include “Documenting the African-American Experience in Las Vegas,” which offers the public an online portal (digital.library.unlv.edu/aae) to the oral histories of black Southern Nevadans as well as access to hundreds of photographs and documents scanned from the personal collections of project participants; “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which focuses on the unique experiences of the wives of Nevada Test Site workers; the “John S. Park Project,” which delves into the lives of the people who lived in one of the first Las Vegas neighborhoods listed on the National Historic Register; and “Heart to Heart,” which recounts the medical profession in early Las Vegas.
Photographs of showgirls and entertainers at the Moulin Rouge, 1955.
“What’s really significant about the Oral History Research Center is that it allows us to document Las Vegas history more thoroughly,” added Michelle Light, Director of Special Collections. “The personal stories, the oral testimonies complement our Special Collections richly.”
Thanks to recent funding through the Library Services and Technology Act, a federal program exclusively for libraries administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Oral History Research Center will soon embark on the Berkley Square project. The Berkley Square neighborhood was the first subdivision in Nevada built by and for black residents in Las Vegas, in the West Side. It reflected the social progress that was being made in the late 40s and early 50s, and set the stage for an improved quality of life for the city’s black community.
White says she plans to also collect oral histories that document life in the neighborhoods near West Charleston Boulevard and Rancho Drive, including the Scotch 80s, Rancho Circle, and others. Smaller projects include stories of the musicians who played behind the stars on the Strip.
“Some people think that if you’ve never been a political official, or held a position of prominence in the community, you can’t be interviewed. That is not true,” White says. “Everybody has a part in the history, and it’s great when people realize that.”
The Oral History Research Center is planning its second celebratory event in October to highlight oral histories from jazz entertainers and musicians on the Las Vegas Strip.
Explore the "Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas project" at http://digital.library.unlv.edu/aae.
To learn more about the Oral History Research Center, call (702) 895-2222 or search our oral history collection online.