Claytee White: Sewing Stories
As director of Oral History Research Center for UNLV Libraries, Claytee White stitches together the voices and events of Southern Nevada into a living tapestry. Ongoing and completed projects under her tenure include the Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project, the LatinX Voices of Southern Nevada and Shining Light on Tragedy: Collecting 14,000 Tweets Following the 1 October Mass Shooting.
I came to Las Vegas because it was time to leave Los Angeles. I had been there for 22 years. It was 1992, the middle of the Rodney King riots, when I decided that, “OK, this is it. This is as clear a signal as I will ever get.” I had been to Las Vegas several times and I thought maybe this was the place. I’m from the South. I grew up in Ahoskie, North Carolina. So, I did not have, and do not have, any great racial harmony expectations. But I knew where I had come from. I knew that even with racial tensions in the country, there were still opportunities. When I got here, I took the time to decide what I wanted to do. John Jakes writes these books that are fictionalized history. I would read a book and say, “I wonder if that historical event really took place like that. I wonder what really happened?” I began to say that often. So, I picked up the telephone one day and I called UNLV. They just had a major in American history and I could tailor that to take all kinds of classes. So, that’s what I did. There was an oral history program in the state; it was at UNR. UNLV decided it was time for us to collect our own history here. At the end of our training, we decided to do a project. There were no men in this program, just women who decided to take these oral history workshops and seminars. Dr. Joanne Goodwin was kind of the person in charge. Dr. Goodwin decided she was going to do managers and owners of casinos and hotels who were women. Joyce Marshall wanted to do dancers and showgirls. There was an Asian-American woman in the group who wanted to do Asian entertainment; she wound up doing the Kim Sisters. And I said, “Well, what am I going to do?” And Dr. Goodwin said to me, “Claytee, there is a film in the library — ‘The Road to Las Vegas.’” It’s about people who migrated to Las Vegas from small towns in the South: Tallulah, Louisiana, and Fordyce, Arkansas. As soon as I watched it, I knew those towns. So, I said, “Now, where is the black community. How do I find these people? At the time, I wore my hair processed. I had a black beautician whose shop was downtown on Carson Street. I go into the beauty shop the next Saturday’s appointment and I say, “I need to find the black community.” My beautician said, “The woman getting ready to get into the chair as you’re getting out, you need to talk to her.” That woman was Clonie Gay. Clonie is the daughter of Jimmy and Hazel Gay. Jimmy was the first African-American mortician in Las Vegas. Jimmy Gay had started to have a series of mini-strokes and could not speak at the time. He paced the floor, wanting to talk so badly as his wife told their story. I have a sister who lives here now, and a neighbor came in while I was visiting her and said, “There’s no culture here.” That just ruffles my feathers. Cause it means that you just have not done your homework. I took a breath and I said, “Did you go to the Smith Center a couple of weeks ago for the Broadway in The Hood production? Did you go over to the West Las Vegas Arts Center and the library for any of the programming for Juneteenth?” I started naming occasions. “Have you been to the Mob Museum? Where the Mob Museum is located was the first African-American community in the city. That building was built in 1931 when blacks were asked to leave downtown and move across the tracks.” People like that I want to talk to. I want to help them reclaim their heritage.
Jeff Scheid of Jeff Scheid Photography