It must be gathered, preserved and presented so that it can continue to do what it does best: teach those generations yet to come what others before them have done.
History makes many strong statements, but there is another thing history does well: evokes questions. What does Black History Month mean to us collectively as a city and a nation?
Beyond the celebrations, is there more we can do individually and as a community to make the shortest month of the year go a longer way toward our gaining a greater appreciation for the history of Blacks in Nevada and our nation?
Who shares in the responsibility for keeping historic documents and stories together in order to share them with those who were not there to experience the moments firsthand?
A local resource person I interviewed, Claytee D. White, is dedicated to answering these questions and teaching locals why historical documentation and personal stories ought to matter to us all. She serves as the director of the Oral History Research Center in Special Collections at UNLV Libraries.
Other questions arise regarding Black history or the historical record of any other specific group: Who decides whose information is worthy of being collected and kept? Who gets to store it? Where will it be housed and for how long? When can it be accessed and by whom?
Were it not for writers, historians, archaeologists, researchers, documentary and movie producers, and many other information gatherers, what happened in the past would stay in the past.
As oral history specialists and document archivists, Claytee and her colleagues at UNLV, along with the staff and volunteers who support their efforts, work to ensure that no part of Nevada’s people’s history is lost.
She spoke in an exclusive phone interview for this Black History Month article.
Interview with Claytee D. White Director, Oral History Research Center
University Libraries Special Collections
Q: What would you like the public to know first about the Oral History Research Center?
CW: We are sponsored and supported by UNLV Libraries. This is where all the archives are housed.
Q: How important are collections of oral histories, documents and other materials when it comes to local Black history?
CW: We should always, always, research, learn and archive Black history, African-American history. It is just as important as any other history that we are taught… [and] learn throughout life.
Our students here at UNLV and researchers from all over the world who come to Las Vegas cannot write [comprehensively] about Blacks in Las Vegas because we don’t have enough of those ‘primary source’ documents. …Oral histories are primary source documents.
…All other communities share their materials with the library here. So if someone wants to write a paper… you can find things about Junior League, the Mesquite Club, but you can’t find anything about Les Femmes Douze [for example], because we don’t have the materials [in our UNLV archives].
We only have probably two or three collections that inform us about the African-American community. We have Ruby Duncan’s collection and a few others. We have Alice Key’s collection… but what we have is just
Q: You use Les Femmes Douze as an example, so what can you share about their community service history that would be good to document and archive?
CW: It’s an organization that is now 50 years old. Twelve African-American women started that organization… raising
scholarships and introducing young [girls of color] to society. They are still operating; and they have just celebrated 50 years. We don’t have those materials.
Q: So it seems that there is missing information about significant Black individuals and groups. What is on the top of your list of materials to acquire?
CW: We want organizations in the Black community [to provide materials about their history]. And we’ve contacted most of them…We’re talking about The Fordyce Club… Les Femmes Douze… Delta Sigma Theta…
We’re talking about Black churches… I spoke at a Black church [recently]. …I told them, ‘We don’t have any of your church bulletins. We’d love to archive those for you here at UNLV.’
Q: How is the Black community informed about the need for materials for the archive?
CW: I spoke in the community last year over 40 times, on 40 different occasions, and I tell everyone this. The people that we are after in the African-American community, the people that we are actively recruiting [to get their materials], they know.
Q: What seems to be a barrier or major obstacles to acquisition of those materials?
CW: People have to trust the University.
Q: How can that be achieved, and how do you facilitate that trust?
CW: I think we are building those bonds right now. I have been out in the community now for many, many years collecting oral interviews.
People now see those interviews online. …There are a lot of people in the African-American community who now have [the bound copy of their own oral interview] on their coffee tables.
Q: What do the subjects of the oral history interviews receive?
CW: When you sit for an oral interview, we give you a bound copy of that interview, eventually. It’s a long process. …We don’t consider it a publication; it is your interview… about your memories of Las Vegas.
Q: Can you give an account of someone who was interviewed?
CW: Let me tell you about Alice Key. She came here in 1955 and made a life here. …She did a lot of interesting and noteworthy things in Las Vegas… Alice not only sat for an interview, we had two or three sessions. We gave her a bound copy of those interviews. …Alice had one on her coffee table for years, and the other one [is in the library at UNLV.] Q: Where can those interviews be viewed by the public?
CW: [All of the oral interviews are at UNLV] in Special Collections.
That is where we house all of these unique items that document Las Vegas history. …They are not rotating [so they cannot be checked out]. You have to come into Special Collections… at the library and use them… that’s what our researchers from all over the world do.
Q: You mentioned that the entire process takes considerable time. What are some of the steps involved in taking an oral history?
CW: When people sit for an interview… we have it transcribed. We send it to them so they can make light edits. We allow that narrator to make corrections. Then they send it back to us.
We then have one of our volunteer or paid editors go through it, check for historical facts, add a table of contents, an index, a preface and any photographs that the [narrator provided for use]. …Then we put it together …send it out to our bindery. Of course that’s a long process in itself.
Eventually, that person gets a copy, it’s catalogued, and we have [a copy here in the UNLV] library.
Q: What does the book look like once completed?
CW: It’s a hard copy with their name on the front and the name of the Oral History Research Center. …If the person has shared images, you will find those images throughout the interview.
Q: Is the oral interview or any group of interviews ever put into a book for distribution?
CW: [No], it is the [narrator’s] interview. We don’t try to take it out of interview format. We don’t try to make a book out of it. It is [intended to be used only as] a primary source document.
Q: That term sounds familiar. What are some other types of primary source documents?
CW: A source document can be a letter that someone has written. It can be a deed to [a subject’s] home. A person’s oral history is a primary source document.
Q: You are identified positively with and respected for your passion about collecting and keeping local Black history intact and making sure it can be referenced permanently at UNLV Libraries, but is that the scope of your job as director of the Oral History Research Center?
CW: We collect the history of Las Vegas — I should say Clark County. We collect the history of this area.
Q: What other demographic or segments of the community are represented through your department’s work? What other projects are in the archives?
CW: [To name a few] …History of Early Health Care: An Oral History Project of UNLV. We have done a project of those [musicians] who played on the Strip behind the greats. ..There’s a project that’s an open-ended one called Early Las Vegas [for oral histories that might not fit into other categories].
We’ve done a couple of communities here… an oral history project of John S. Park, and we are working on one right now of the West Charleston area, those neighborhoods that include the Scotch
Eighties… [and other sections].
Q: What were some of the earliest projects you worked on and how did you get experience conducting oral history research?
CW: The African-American Project is one of those… It’s very fortunate that it was my own research starting in graduate school. I came here to UNLV in my mid-years of life [in 1992], and I earned my master’s degree in history. …At that time, the History Department decided that it was time for UNLV to learn how to do oral history.
There was one oral history program [in Nevada] …located in Reno. It had started back in the mid 1960s. There were oral history programs starting all over the country, at all universities — UCLA, Chapel Hill— all over.
UNR got the program because UNLV was so very young. UNR never [had sufficient funding] to do oral history statewide. When I went back to school… around 1995, 1996, it was the perfect timing. …The history department [at UNLV] decided they would start training anyone interested…
A lot of the graduate students and some of the professors [were taught] how to do good oral history. Some of us [graduate students in the History Department] got together and we did an oral history project.
My portion of that project (for my own research and my own thesis) was about the African-American community. …It was about women, and that’s how I started collecting interviews.
Q: Who were some of the women you spoke with during interviews?
CW: We interviewed [women in the Black community]… Hazel Gay, Alice Key, Anna Bailey, Sarann Knight Preddy… [among others].
Q: When was the center established and how did your position as director come about?
CW: Skip forward now to 2003… UNLV [established] the Oral History
Research Center so when they started looking for a director… someone mentioned my name.
At that time, I was already back East [in North Carolina] but ready to come back to Las Vegas [after my mother passed in 2002].
Q: Does the subject of oral history or Black history appeal to younger people or students today? Do they seem to know or care much about the importance of studying local history or Black History Month?
CW: I think students are more interested in history than we give them credit for. If we present it to them, and present it in an exciting way, they are interested in it and they want to know more.
I’ll tell you why I know: Whenever I am invited to a classroom on any campus—it can be elementary school, middle school, high school, or here at UNLV — I go in, I give oral history workshops, I talk about African-American history (if that is the topic)… and they are on the edge of their seats. …Especially older students, when I give them the opportunity to go into the community to collect an oral history… I got 25 out of one class!
Those [oral histories] will eventually be part of our African-American Experience website. When history is taught well… with enthusiasm… they are amazed. If we teach it, they will learn.
Q: It is exciting to hear about your work and hopefully you will share more in coming months. For now, what else would you like to invite the public to know or do regarding the Oral History Research Center, Special Collections or the UNLV Libraries?
CW: I’d like them to use the website, [www.Library.UNLV.edu/speccol ], and to know that we are located at UNLV, in the library. [4505 S. Maryland Pkwy., Las Vegas, NV 89154].
Q: What do you desire to see regarding Black history and local history as we go forward?
CW: Here in Las Vegas, we celebrate [ethnic history] Asian or Pacific Island [History Month]… We celebrate these [multicultural] months.
…Maybe because we celebrate [diverse] groups, people will see it as important. And maybe they will then take a step into that culture and learn more…
It gives us an opportunity. It gives us a door. …Let’s use it in a positive way. …February is Black History Month… it is
just a starting point.
Conclusion: Thanks go to Claytee D. White for being a guest contributor for this Black History Month series. Her input has helped make this a more informative and enjoyable learning period for many locals and visitors. She invites each of us to make every day a day to learn more about our local and cultural history.
This month, Claytee’s work shows that one person can have a tremendous impact on the way history is kept alive and made available for anyone who seeks to access the information.
It is encouraging to become more conscious of the responsibility to share more information about the Black people with whom we live, work and socialize. There are countless people who have made or are making major strides in the interest of the Black community and this city.
Never should it be taken for granted that their stories are common knowledge. It is a shared responsibility to add to the fountain of knowledge and get Black people’s stories told for the record and provide the documentation for archives.
There is not enough history in the record books about the Black experience in Nevada (or America, for that matter), according to Claytee and others who seek to collect information for collections locally or elsewhere. As she stated during the phone interview, “It’s up to us to do that. It’s up to us to learn it and to share it.”
If you or your group wants to respond to her requests for materials or find out about volunteer opportunities, please email her at email@example.com or phone the office at (702) 895-2222.
Parker Philpot is a Southern Nevada-based writer, commentator and humorist. She periodically writes “From Parker’s Pen” and features interesting people, highlights businesses, and points out kudos and caveats for better living. Her contact email is firstname.lastname@example.org.