When Las Vegas children climb on their grandfathers’ knees to listen to a story, they very well may hear tales of the city’s history. At 108 years old, Las Vegas is fairly young. Its natives, with unique experiences, have their own stories to tell or can share those of their parents and grandparents. Unlike in much older cities, in Las Vegas those interested in its history aren’t confined to reading about it. They can hear it as well.
The Oral History Research Center at UNLV finds, collects and catalogs the city’s history through personal stories from everyone from Las Vegas founders and children of politicians, to a mechanic’s son who remembers his father’s shop on Main Street, or from a casino worker at the MGM Grand the day of the fire in 1981. These oral histories give a voice to Las Vegas’ past. They also help to explain its present.
Officially, the center has been collecting these stories for 10 years and, to celebrate, it’s sharing its collection with the residents who helped create it.
The center has planned to host three events in 2013, one of which took place in May with the other two scheduled later in the year. The first event, a panel discussion, hosted attorneys with experience 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 brought all views together on a common subject in a living space, where history was alive and not confined to a textbook.
“I wouldn’t be in this privileged position if it weren’t for the people in this room and on this panel,” says Rachel Anderson, moderator for the event and associate professor of law at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law. “This is what is meant when we say, ‘standing on the shoulders of the people who came before you.’”
Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center, says she believes this is a good time to engage in panel discussions and collect oral histories to hear history first hand from the people who lived it. “We have a unique opportunity, and we’re taking advantage of it,” White added. “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 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 2003, she was hired as its director.
“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,” she says.
The center isn’t just for those interested in the Las Vegas Strip or locals who want to look into their family’s past. Researchers from all over the world visit UNLV to research Las Vegas history, and the Oral History Research Center provides valuable information not found anywhere else. They know the center’s goal is to record the whole story; and that it does this by capturing many voices and perspectives on a single topic in time.
If you would like to learn more about this important effort, please contact, Director of Special Collections Michelle Light at (702) 895-2293.
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 blacks in Southern Nevada, as well as access to hundreds of photographs and documents; “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 accounts the medical profession in early Las Vegas.
White says Las Vegas history wasn’t just written by the movers and shakers. All its residents—natives and transplants—helped to create the city’s timeline. “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.”
“It makes me positive and hopeful for the future. Having 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,” Anderson says. “They are guides for the future. The fact that the library is creating space for this kind of work is very important.”
“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 a recent grant from the Library Science & Technology Act, the 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 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.”
To learn more about the Oral History Research, call (702) 895-2222.