There were hotels, there were schools, and there were houses just like everywhere else in town. But where Audrey James lived, there were no paved streets, no sewers, and no sidewalks. It was 1952, and Las Vegas was segregated.
But the school that would become UNLV was not.
James had spotted a newspaper ad for the college classes being offered in the evenings in downtown Las Vegas. Those classes would expand to become the Southern Regional Division of the University of Nevada, popularly known as Nevada Southern, and then UNLV.
James was the only black student out of the dozen that enrolled in the literature class under James Dickenson, who became the first administrator for Nevada Southern.
In July , she turned 100, possibly making her the oldest living Rebel. [Five years later, she still spry enough to serve as UNLV's honorary homecoming queen.]
She earned her degrees while she was teaching first grade in the predominantly African American schools in west Las Vegas. She took classes in the evenings and during the summers to earn her bachelor of science degree in elementary education in 1965 and her master of education in 1971.
On campus then, she said, "there were a few sarcastic comments along the lines of 'Let's see what osmosis will do,' but for the better part of the time, I was just another student.
"One day, in fact, the whole class decided to go out to lunch over on Fremont Street. We sat down and a waiter came over and said 'No blacks allowed.' So we all left. We went back to school, and we did not eat lunch that day.
"I'd gone through so much of that before I came out here, it didn't really bother me. But it bothered some of my classmates."
With limited options under the Jim Crow laws in her native Mississippi, James didn't begin her teaching career until she was in her 30s. The public schools she attended as a child held classes only few months out of the year, but her mother taught at a one-room school in another county. James was able to piece together a few extra months of learning each year at her mother's side. She graduated from high school in 1935, and was the only one of her seven siblings to eventually go on to college.
"In the very beginning I grew up on the farm, and I didn't like it, picking cotton in the hot sun and all that," James remembers. "So I saw how the teachers lived, and I said, 'Well, I'm going to school.'"
After high school she moved to Cincinnati, where she attended The Cosmopolitan School of Music, and Salmon P. Chase College of Commerce.
Her work experience included stints in both Cincinnati and Chicago as a hospital attendant, a nanny, and during World War II, in a factory assembling microphones for airplane pilots.
Her eventual career in teaching began when she was a kindergarten teacher's assistant at Waterman School, a private Cincinnati boarding school. It was an era of such entrenched segregation that James was prohibited from watching movies with her white students. She could drop the children off and pick them up, but she could not sit with them in the theater.
"I tried to get into the nursing school," James remembers. "They wouldn't accept any blacks. The principal of the Waterman school said, 'Audrey, you're so good with kids you need to go to teacher's college.'"
James eventually returned home to Mississippi to care for her mother and taught for three years, third- and fourth-graders at Globe Academy in Columbia, Miss., at a starting salary of $97 a month.
"When I started I was not a good disciplinarian," James says. "But as time went on, I learned, you don't yell at the students. You talk very quietly, and then they talk quietly among themselves."
She met her husband, construction worker Isaiah James, while he was in Mississippi visiting family. They corresponded for a year before she joined him in Las Vegas, where they married. They bought their first house in 1963 on Revere Street in North Las Vegas with a down payment of $950. They moved into the North Las Vegas home on the day of President John F. Kennedy's funeral, and James has lived there ever since. The couple had no children of their own. Her husband died in 1984.
James taught hundreds of children to read during her career at Westside, Madison, Paul Culley, Jo Mackey, and Laura Dearing elementary schools. By 1968 these and other Westside schools were home to more than 80 percent of African American teachers, and more than 97 percent of their students were African American, according to Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas, an oral history project from UNLV Libraries.
In her early days teaching, the district saved the best materials for the white schools, James recalled. So she developed her own teaching materials by hand, including lined paper.
"I had a lot of good days teaching," James says. "Everything would go well in the classroom, and it was just such a pleasure to teach because I could see how much the children improved. By the month of March, they would just bloom."
In the early 1970s, James moved to Jo Mackey Elementary, a so-called "prestige school," one of Clark County Schools' failed attempts at integration. James says she only faced outright prejudice from one mother, who would not allow her to discipline her child.
"Children are not really prejudiced. It's the parents. Children like you for who you are."
She finished her elementary teaching career at Laura Dearing Elementary School in 1978, just eight years after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Clark County Schools to develop a mandatory desegregation plan. But having worked her entire life, James was not ready to retire. She taught adult literacy and math for many more years through a program aimed at mothers receiving welfare assistance.
Today, the centenarian still works three mornings a week as supervisor of FISH, a food pantry she started 27 years ago located at Calvary Southern Baptist Church.
Over the years, she has told her nieces and nephews that "they have to believe in the almighty God. With that kind of faith, you can succeed. You can overcome the barriers," James says. "And, of course, you need to go to school. That's the main thing. Stay in school. Because it helps you to live a better life, all the way around."
Two of James' nieces also hold degrees from UNLV: Judye P. Conner, '00 MS Educational Leadership, and Lamona Jones, '10 BS Workforce Education.
"The only reason I finished my bachelor's degree is because she pushed me," says her great-great grandniece, Lamona Jones, who is now going on for a master's degree while she works part-time as a grant assistant at UNLV.