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Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas Goes Digital

By econnections on June 19, 2013 3:22 PM | Permalink

During this past year of organizing the African American Collaborative, a series of three town hall meetings were hosted at the West Las Vegas Public Library. These meetings introduced community members to the project and encouraged their contributions as narrators. Participants also shared their personal photos and other memorabilia. Future town hall meetings will be announced in local publications, on the UNLV and UNLV Libraries websites, and on television programs.

It’s one thing to read about history. It’s what academics and other interested parties have always done. But anyone who’s ever listened to someone tell a story—whether it’s about their day or about something that happened long ago—knows there’s just something special about those kinds of recollections.

To add interest and dimension to Las Vegas’ history, as well as put faces to long told names, UNLV Libraries’ Oral History Research Center created the “Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas” project. Now, to make it accessible to all, the center has taken the project online.

The first part of the project focused on collecting stories and items from the community through individual meetings and interviews as well as three town hall meetings. During these meetings, connections were made and community partners, such as Henderson Libraries, the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, the Boyd School of Law Library, Nevada State Museum, Vegas PBS and the Clark County Museum, among others, helped to collect other items for the collection.

Phase II makes the collection accessible to the local and global communities via the Internet.

Director of Vegas PBS Tom Axtell, along with project community advisor Trish Geran, wanted to use the power of television to inform the community about the project. Vegas PBS provided video recordings of some of the personal oral history accounts and, through ties with the Clark County School District, will assist in getting the project’s information to children in school.
Click this link to see the conversations filmed by Vegas PBS.

“We wanted to make sure it had the currency of the visual,” Axtell says. “It’s one thing to look at a person’s face and listen to them tell the story to really capture the emotion of that story. An important part of the history of Las Vegas includes the richness of the African American community, West Las Vegas and the struggle for equal treatment. It’s the maturation of our community. By fostering this website, they create this remarkable tool for anyone interested in this history of Las Vegas.”

A television production based on the project will likely be planned in the next year, says Tom Axtell, director of Vegas PBS.

The project’s digital component falls into the hands of Cory Lampert, head of UNLV Libraries Digital Collections, and her team, who attended the town hall meetings and scanned photos and documents attendees brought with them to add to the collection. Highlights of the oral histories, their transcripts and other materials are available via the web portal, which allows users to search the collection by keyword or browse the entire collection. Because the oral histories have complete transcripts, they’re easily searchable. A historical timeline allows users to learn as much or as little as they like.

“They can delve deeper into a particular time and then go into the collection. They can see what was going on in Las Vegas and compare it to what was happening at the same time across the country,” Lampert says. “What I’ve enjoyed about it so much is that we have a good participatory structure set up. It’s been really supported by the African American community, which has provided direction on content as well as on what the website should look like.”

The collection, like many others gathered by the Oral History Research Center, is an evolving project and will grow as items and histories are added. This means the website will continue to grow, too.

“It’s functional. It’s beautiful. It’s a place where people can go and find out all this great information,” says Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center. “We will constantly add to it for however long this project goes on. It’s only in its infancy. The web portal has always been part of the project. Although the project won’t be entirely online, researchers will know it’s available to them.”

As the daughter of Las Vegas’ first black dentist, Jarmilla McMillan-Arnold feels a connection to the project. Although she saw history play out in front of her eyes and in the experiences of her father, James B. McMillan, she understands different perspectives. Those different views make the project even more intriguing, she says.

Every story is important because it can add a piece to the historical puzzle.

“People think they didn’t do anything. But they lived here. Their grandparents and parents were here. They lived it,” McMillan-Arnold says. “Their stories are as important as my story. It’s just a different perspective.”

The African American experience in Las Vegas isn’t only documented for a specific community or groups of researchers. The collection is also for residents who are looking for more information about their past and how their family members impacted the evolution of Las Vegas.

“They may not have collected diaries or the letters they wrote, and they may not have kept pictures. Without this project, those memories wouldn’t be here for us to study and appreciate,” says Michelle Light, director of special collections. “Oral histories allow history to come alive. Hearing personal stories or testimonies first hand are much more special than reading a newspaper article, especially for those studying history.”

Although McMillan-Arnold grew up around some of the city’s most notable and recognizable names—Mabel Hoggard and Charles I. West, to name a couple—she stresses the importance of documenting the history of the black community in Las Vegas for future generations.

“I feel a certain pride at being a part of the committee. I’m reaching out to blacks in the community to provide their stories to the university—to put their stories on record…forever,” McMillan-Arnold says. “There are different experiences out there that need to be gathered so they can become a part of history, so children in all schools—not just black schools—can learn from them. Just like they should have access to the Native American stories or the Asian stories.”

The “Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas” project was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. To find out more about the project, visit