The Westside is a neighborhood on the verge of great things, and Claytee White will be its cheerleader all the way.
“At one time in history, the Westside was the only area where Blacks could live,” White said. “So Blacks made home and community in that small area.”
As part of her work as Director of the Oral History Research Center in the UNLV Libraries Special Collections and Archives, White collected many stories from residents of the Westside as part of the Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas project, chronicling the strength and resilience of this community.
Located just west of the railroad tracks about a half mile from the heart of Downtown Las Vegas, the Westside was at one time the center of Black life in the Vegas Valley. Bound by Bonanza on the south, Lake Mead on the north, the freeway on the east and Martin Luther King Boulevard on the west, the Westside is where the Black business space existed and Black people lived or stayed as visitors, including entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., while working on The Strip.
Inspired by new projects from the HUNDRED (Historic Urban Neighborhood Design Redevelopment) Plan for the neighborhood, White wanted to focus the discussion for episode 8 of the We Need To Talk: Conversations on Systemic Racism for a More Resilient Las Vegas on the Westside.
“The Westside is ripe for a new vision, a new life,” White said. “The community – working with the county, the city, and property owners – is ready to blossom. This is not a revitalization effort. It is a birthing of what never was, but of what can be.”
Here, White discusses her love of the Westside, what she hopes people have been able to learn from We Need To Talk, and what comes next.
What inspires you most about this neighborhood?
The limitless possibilities inspire me. The Black historic community is a complicated, complex, entangled web of all races, many cultures, and all classes of people. However, it is the home of the Black community, the only place that could be claimed at one time. That is in the past, but the future is vibrant, bright, diverse, cosmopolitan, and multifaceted. It is filled with the promise of businesses, an educational complex, new and renewed homes, and a spiritual community that uplifts each individual.
How have you seen the Westside change since you moved to Las Vegas?
In 1992, I did not know where the Black community was located. My beautician pointed the way. When I first saw the community, I was in awe because my first interview appointment was with Jimmy and Hazel Gay. Their home was located in Bonanza Village across the street from the Westside. The house was a sprawling ranch-style structure with beautiful trees shading the property. I did not know that this was not typical, so I have always had this introductory image of the community in the back of my mind. So as I entered areas that were neglected over the years, I knew what could be. We are in the middle of this becoming.
What do you hope that people have been able to take from the We Need To Talk series?
I hope that people have gained an understanding of what systemic racism is and how it allows discrimination to flourish beyond reason. How it has allowed health care to be denied, wealth to be curtailed, criminal justice to be unjust, and education to be based upon the money that a community can produce through tax dollars on properties that have been redlined.
What has surprised you about these We Need To Talk conversations?
I was most surprised by the power of statistics. Those instances helped prove a discriminatory practice. For instance, in our discussion on education, it was mentioned that while Black students are 15 percent of the school-age population, they represent 40 percent of arrests among schoolchildren. People got it. They could see the inequities. That is what we wanted to do with this series.
What motivates you to have these conversations in spite of setbacks and challenges?
We move forward through fits and starts; gaining a tiny bit of ground with each new effort. This is a slow process but we cannot stop. The next generations after me should not have to work this hard because the foundational arguments have been proved, so now we have to put solutions in place. Because we have sporadic forward momentum and movement, there is hope. Now we are ready to approach reparations and reconciliation. We have proved that the ills of systemic racism, since 1619, have caused Blacks who descended from slaves, to be entitled to remedies. It’s time to right the wrongs and stand for justice in a world that works for everyone.
How does your work in the Oral History Research Center aid the effort to dismantle systemic racism?
We collect the memories. There is nothing more powerful than history and oral history elevates that power because all these stories are told, recorded, stored, and shared with the world. Everyone is valued equally. Stories from the Black community relate the joys and tragedies of life in America. The truth cannot be erased. Too many voices have been recorded.
How is the experience of reading an oral history, a person’s life experience in their own words, different from reading a newspaper article or history textbook?
There is a special power in the spoken word, an eloquence. We know about the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but when you listen to the story that John Lewis recorded, he puts you on that bridge with him. You feel the blows. I feel that when I am in a room with Leon Carter, who came to Las Vegas in 1942 and lived in a giant tent that separated families with sheets for privacy; I feel his mother’s pain when she refused to unpack her suitcases.
What’s next? How do we keep this work moving forward?
Tough question. Now is the time to get engaged. We have to put boots on the ground, tell the story, and get involvement from a wide swath of the city. When we meet people in the field who are changing the community, we have to inquire and showcase those efforts. Maybe quarterly, we can tell a few stories about the Westside, highlight the progress, and see and know the future with the community.