In collaboration with the UNLV University Libraries Oral History Research Center (OHRC), several UNLV undergraduate students in two Afro-American Studies courses conducted oral histories with black Las Vegas residents. Dr. Manoucheka Celeste and Dr. Julia Lee contacted Claytee White, director of the OHRC, to bring black history to life, after discovering the wealth of primary source materials available in the Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas Digital Collection.
White taught Dr. Celeste’s students how to conduct oral histories, who then had the opportunity to reach out into the black community and learn more first hand. While some interviewed family members with vivid memories of events in the black experience, most students, having no roots in the city, were assigned key personalities in the Las Vegas community to interview. The work culminated with students sharing how they were inspired, brought to tears, amazed, or transformed by the experience. Dr. Celeste explained, “Claytee's teaching oral history as a research methodology is a critical part of bridging the academic experience and the lived experience. Oral history improves communication skills and listening. Students learn to synthesize individual stories and theorize how they fit into the broader national and international narratives covered in class.”
While oral histories were embedded into Dr. Celeste’s syllabus, Dr. Lee’s students worked with White on oral histories for extra credit after an initial lecture, meeting with her individually for coaching on conducting oral history interviews. At the conclusion of the course, students’ presentations revealed a deep appreciation for Las Vegas history. For example, one team created a documentary after conducting an interview with the first black certified public accountant in Las Vegas who had served on the Nevada Gaming Commission.
Conducting oral histories reinforces learning in many ways. The experience sparks curiosity, inspires questioning and probing complex social issues, and develops critical thinking skills. Students develop face-to-face relationships within the community and may explore diverse perspectives, experiencing both intellectual and emotional growth. Dr. Celeste’s and Dr. Lee’s students discovered powerful lessons:
"My parents inspired me because they taught us, instilled in us great values and that education was my ticket." Interview with Pamela Goynes, North Las Vegas City Councilwoman.
"It wasn't until I got into high school that I realized we had to get up an hour to two hours earlier to go to school because we were bused. But, I realized that nobody cared about my grades but me, and I had to focus on my education.” Interview with Robert Bolden.
"We still have a long way to go but thank goodness we are not where we were." Interview with Lawrence Weekly, Clark County Commissioner.
University Libraries’ Oral History Research Center welcomes the opportunity to instruct students in oral history methodologies or to partner with faculty on courses that will use oral histories to connect students with our region. The OHRC is devoted to recording eye-witness accounts about the history of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada, with projects covering a breadth of topics, including race, education, health care, community and neighborhood development, religion, politics, businesses and occupations, the gaming industry and much more.
Please contact Claytee White, director of University Libraries’ Oral History Research Center if you are interested in a potential collaboration.