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The Memory Keeper

Oral historian Claytee White has spent a career recording Las Vegans’ personal histories. Now she speaks about her own remarkable roots.

People  |  Jun 14, 2017  |  By News Center
Claytee White, Director, Oral History Research Center at the Historic Westside School

Claytee White, Director, Oral History Research Center at the Historic Westside School (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services) 

Editor's Note: 

This story by UNLV junior Soni Brown originally was published on the UNLV Greenspun School of Journalism website Rebelfolio. The site offers advanced journalism students a venue to build their portfolios before graduating.

For the past 15 years, Claytee White has documented the lives of Southern Nevadans, giving them an opportunity to tell their own stories in their own voices. It is a long process that involves raising funds, finding storytellers, researching background, asking the right questions, recording, transcribing, formatting, and cataloging the interviews. As the inaugural director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV University Libraries, White finds the narratives that push our understanding of Las Vegas well beyond its reputation as a mafia town turned resort Mecca.

White has recorded about 1,000 interviews. The subjects range from showgirls to governors, housekeepers to reverends. They are often people, who, like White, started from humble beginnings far away and made something of their lives in the Las Vegas Valley. In the process, they made Las Vegas.

In the academic and journalistic circles of Las Vegas, White requires little introduction; people know who she is and what she has contributed to her adopted city. They know her quick, wide smile and eyes that light up as if to say “I want to hear your story.” Her face wears that perpetual look of someone who is always listening, always watching. “The work she does to document Las Vegas and the many different peoples in Las Vegas is important,” said David Schwartz, a historian and director of UNLV’s Gaming Research Center. “These are people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice. She’ll go out of her way to maybe find people who haven’t told their story already.”         

But for all that White has done to document the history of a city and people, she has been hesitant to record her own story. “I’m too busy capturing the history of Las Vegas,” she said. But as she listens to the stories of other people’s pains, joys, and experiences, White is coming to realize that her own part in the expansion of African-Americans’ role in post-World War II America is a tale worth telling.

“I was talking to a person yesterday,” White said. “He grew up picking cotton. He owned the largest bus transportation company in Nevada in the 1980s and 1990s. While I was sitting there listening to his story, I kept thinking: This is so close to my life. How blessed I am, and how blessed this man is.”  She said this quietly, with a nonchalant tone that belies how far she has come — how far her people have come — since the days of ‘whites only’ drinking fountains, segregated schools, and humiliating Jim Crow laws.

“I was born a sharecropper,” White says. “Tobacco, cotton, peanuts and corn …”

The Way It Was

Las Vegas is about 2,500 miles and a straight shot west on Interstate Highway 40 from Bertie County, North Carolina, where Claytee White was born after World War II. Anchored by the Chowan and Roanoke rivers, Bertie County’s fertile uplands and lowlands made it perfect for agriculture. Native Americans in the area sustained themselves from the nearby swamps long before the 1670 purchase by James Henry Bertie, who parceled the land into what it looks like today. Eventually, slaves were brought in to grow tobacco and other crops.

Sharecropping followed in the wake of the scuttled “40 acres and a mule” agrarian land reform act after the Civil War. The “40 acres and a mule” promise attempted to systematically provide reparations in the form of land to newly freed slaves. The concept was radical: giving land to people who had recently been legally deemed sub-human. The idea, according to historian Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, was generated by African-American leaders, as well as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

The land-redistribution policy of “40 acres and a mule” aimed to give former slaves a path toward economic freedom. Undoubtedly an ambitious concept, it met with many challenges. The sheer number of former slaves to be compensated was mind-boggling. It would require more than 400,000 acres of confiscated or abandoned land alone. Despite the obstacles, Sherman gave land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts that had once been owned by Southern farmers and plantation owners to the freed men. This all ended when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and his successor, Andrew Johnson — a former Tennessee senator, overturned the order in 1865. The problem with the reform act was not that it failed, but that it was never implemented.

After this devastating blow to the emancipated, many former slaves became trapped in a system of economic exploitation known as sharecropping. It was a contract-labor system that kept many in abject poverty. The concept was meant to be beneficial to both landowners and tenant farmers and was not regulated to racial identity. Theoretically, anyone needing work could become a sharecropper. Many poor whites, immigrants, and Native Americans did this as well, but it was blacks who suffered in the greatest numbers for the longest time. Lacking capital and land — and without the ability to obtain either former slaves were forced to work as sharecroppers for large landowners for far longer than others.

In some states, blacks were forced into sharecropping. Vagrancy laws were loosely applied to any able-bodied male without a job. Black men who were found guilty of vagrancy — or those who were unemployed — could face years in prison with hard labor. Escape from these areas was often nearly impossible: The Ku Klux Klan, in cahoots with local law enforcement, kept watch over the roads and railways for migrating blacks, ever ready to administer vigilante justice.

For many blacks, sharecropping was simply slavery by another name.

Growing Up in Hard Times

White believes her story is notable but not unique. After all, many blacks fled the oppression of the fields in the South only to find life just slightly better out West. But hearing the story of the cotton picker reminded her of how impossible the odds are to have made it out of a place like Bertie County, North Carolina. Her background is one reason she is so passionate about preserving the history of the “others” in Nevada.

She was the first girl born after four boys, a welcome addition to what would eventually be a family of 10. Here at last was a girl to balance out the household of men. To White's mother, it meant there was someone to dress up and pass down all the things women needed to know. They lived in a sharecropper’s house that was rented from the landowner. Such houses were typically two stories with a hallway and back porch. Two bedrooms were on each floor off to the side of the hallway. Toilet facilities were outside. White recalls that the four houses she grew up in looked similar. They were all in constant disrepair, and heat was provided by a wood-burning chimney in the front bedroom and living area. She also remembers that the winters were cold and the house never warm enough. Her mother made quilts, which helped the family get through the wet, weary winters of North Carolina.

White says she always knew that her family was poor. Her dresses weren’t the store-bought dresses of her classmates. Other sharecropping families supplemented their income with side work from the government office. But it was an option open only to men who could read and write. One classmate, whose family’s income came from the misfortune of the father’s death in WWII, could afford to eat a pork chop sandwich each day. It was one thing to be a sharecropper, but to be among the poorest of the sharecroppers was heartbreaking.

Her pain was evident as she described the houses, the scarcity, and the debilitating poverty of her childhood. She mentally brushes it away with a determined look across her face. “I don’t have bad feelings anymore, because I’ve worked through this over the years,” White said. “There was never enough money, and because I kept this thing in mind that I was poor, over the years I’ve allowed myself to remember the times when money was not an issue. I don’t want the memory of just the poverty. I also want to be able to think back to the good times.”

One of the memories she holds onto is the scent that would come from the rented sharecropper’s house. It is of ripe, stone fruits being prepared for the canning process. To her, the cloying, sticky-sweet fragrance was the smell of love. Several of the eight children would sit around a large container to peel the apples, pears, and peaches. Warmth emanated from the wood burning hearth. The wood chirped and crackled while the children stole slices from the bowl. They savored and devoured the slices while the family laughed and delighted themselves in each other’s company.

White’s mother was determined to see her children go to college and get out of the tobacco fields. Raising tobacco was back breaking work that required nimble, young fingers. Everyone had a part to play. White started working as a sharecropper when she was about 6, going out to the fields early each morning. Her duty was to drop the minute black seeds into the dirt holes and cover it with the net to keep out birds. The best-grade tobacco leaves went to companies like Lucky Strike and fetched a higher price. The lesser quality leaves went into piles for snuff and chewing tobacco. If they had enough good leaves, it could be the year the family came out ahead of the creditors. But they rarely did. White does not recall her father ever clearing more than $200 at the end of the year.

Knowing how hard the sharecropping life was, White’s mother was determined to see her children get at least a high school diploma. She saw education as a means of beating poverty. White’s ticket out of the swampland, cow pastures, and latent racism was to become a teacher like the ones she saw in the county. That was the highest profession attainable by women in the community. They drove nice cars and had stylish clothes. But White’s father, who could neither read nor write, didn’t share her mother’s dream: Schooling the children meant that he lost free labor and risked having his children look down on him as his high-school educated wife’s family had.

“Sometimes you think that those are the people who push education even more,” said White. “My father couldn't see that. He just couldn’t see it.”

For a man born a few short decades from slavery, tenant farming was a sure source of income. Sharecropping fed and housed families even as it ravaged the body and debased a man’s self-esteem. White remembers that her father never made much of a profit. Every year, the landowner would subtract the rents and the general store credit from the fluctuating tobacco price. An illiterate sharecropper was at the mercy of the ledger book and landlord’s goodwill.

Moving Forward

It remains a mystery to White why her father went alone to settle the accounts. Perhaps it stemmed from pride. Perhaps he wanted to shield her mother from the indignity of knowing that a year of hard work didn’t pay enough to keep the family solvent. Even though White’s father was illiterate and poor, he was a very resourceful man. She just didn’t know how resourceful. In the late 1950s, he somehow found the $100 to pay for the three older boys’ high school graduation expenses. A few years ago, White found out how: The landowner owned many hogs. So many that he kept a bad account of their numbers. It was easy for a few hogs to go missing. Her father would liberate the hogs and sows, sell them, and keep the proceeds. Mr. White justified it as payment rendered against the landowner’s inflated account-keeping.

White is fine with this justification. After all, this was Bertie County, where non-whites were treated unfair as a matter of rule. The Klan was underground but very active. The communities were separated by race and people kept to themselves. White recalls not seeing white people regularly until after she entered high school. The county had resisted school integration since the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education.

Theirs was a way of life, and bucking the status quo had serious consequences. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: Special Report, written in 1965, states that Klan members would visit black parents to intimidate them and keep them from registering their children in white schools.

Bertie County had to be sued by the federal government in United States v. Bertie County of Education in 1968 to force the county’s sly circumnavigation of the Supreme Court rule. Bertie County assigned teachers and administrators to schools that reflected their race. It effectively kept the schools segregated until 1965, citing a student’s freedom of choice to remain among people who looked like them as a reason not to integrate. Technically, black students were allowed to go to white schools. But the school district had methods to avoid compliance with the law. The school district closed a white school that had a capacity to hold 250 students but was only attended by 90 white students just to prevent integration. Elva Outlaw, White’s younger sister, recalls that the Klan burned down one of the whites’ only high schools in 1968 rather than follow the order to integrate.

White heeded her mother’s push to get an education. A college education would give her leverage out of poverty and Bertie County. She left after high school to attend North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina, but she was only able to stay two years before the ugly specter of needs and lack forced her to give up school. “Even with a grant and some loans, the financial burden was too heavy for my family," White says. “So in 1968, I moved with a girlfriend to Washington, DC. There, I worked for the telephone company. Two years later, I moved with the then love of my life to Los Angeles. We broke up immediately upon arrival. I knew no one!”  She worked full-time job as a switchboard operator at one of the Big Eight accounting firms and went to school at night. In 1974, she was rewarded with the embodiment of a middle class entrance ticket: a bachelor’s degree from California State University Los Angeles.

White’s degree opened up doors in Los Angeles, but she eventually changed professions and worked for the Los Angeles Public Health Foundation and for a time was self-employed, working for a small accounting firm and then for the NAACP.

On April 29, 1992, the South Central Los Angeles streets were no longer happy with business as usual in the city. Neither was White. When four white police officers were found not guilty by a Los Angeles criminal court, the streets erupted in chaos and fire, causing the death of 53 people and the arrest of many more. It echoed the past of Bertie County. Buildings burned and a white trucker was dragged from his cab and beaten while news helicopters captured the event for the evening news.

“In 1992, I was ready to leave the city. I was no longer happy at home nor at work, so I moved to Las Vegas just after the fires from the Rodney King riot were extinguished,” White said. Her decision to move to Las Vegas was easy. “I could live on less income, so I decided to return to school to earn a master's degree. I didn't know what I wanted to study, women's history or women's studies, so first I decided to just take some classes to see if I could keep up with much younger students. After a few semesters, about 1995, I knew I could keep pace so I enrolled in the history department.”

Arriving in Las Vegas

The regular, systematic collection of oral history began on college campuses across the country in the 1960s. In 1965, UNR was the first in the state to have an oral history program. UNLV was then still a very young school. The program at UNR was funded by appropriation from the Nevada Legislature, but during lean years funding dried up. UNLV’s program started in the 1990s, when the history department and libraries services set aside money in the budget for an oral history program.

This was perfect timing for White. As a graduate student, White took an oral history course and was involved as a volunteer with UNLV’s oral history project. At first, she was unsure of how to collect the stories of African-Americans in the county. She was new to the city and not familiar with the neighborhoods. Where would she go? Who should she talk to? On a hunch, she decided to turn to the unofficial social center of black culture: The beauty shop. She was rewarded with contacts and stories that would ultimately help shape the documentary African Americans: The Las Vegas Experience, which aired on PBS in February. The film, which covers the events that defined the black experience in Las Vegas from the city’s founding in 1905 through the Civil Rights era, is based primarily on interviews with people White sought out as she built UNLV’s oral history archive.

In 1997, White completed her master’s degree and left Las Vegas to pursue a doctoral degree in African-American history at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. Her mother fell ill shortly after her arrival at William & Mary, so she returned to Bertie County to care for the woman who had pushed her beyond the circumstances and poverty of sharecropping. While she was there, White ran for county commissioner against an incumbent who had more clout and more name recognition. It was a close race that netted her over 40 percent of the votes, but not a victory. A few months later, her mother died.

Serendipitously, UNLV called her to head the now fully-funded oral history collection, and she returned to Las Vegas in 2003. Since then, White has helmed projects such as All That Jazz, which covers entertainment from the perspective of band members. White authored  "African American Women Migrants: A Las Vegas Odyssey," which appeared in the publication of the Nevada Women’s History Project and "Eight Dollars a Day and Working in the Shade: An Oral History of African American Migrant Women in the Las Vegas Gaming Industry." White, who also is completing her doctoral degree from William & Mary, now is working on the Building Las Vegas project, where she will document the architects, engineers, and construction workers behind some of Sin City’s most notable buildings. “On the back burner, we have a whole list of projects that we want to do,” White said. “That includes an Asian project, a Latino project. Right now, we are conducting a Jewish project.”

Recording Her Own

Melissa Dean, a Canadian expatriate, has worked with White for two years, assisting her with research and editing and transcribing interviews. She praised White’s approach to projects as one full of focus and determination. “She goes towards the story that she is working on with passion like it’s the first time, and she always seems excited,” Dean said. But what inspires her most is hearing White’s own story. “Her upbringing probably made her who she is,” said Dean. “I like to hear stories that I can relate to, and her humble beginnings I can relate to. Her humble beginnings … and then becoming intertwined into the fabric of the city.”

Even though White has been hesitant to document her own history, she is beginning to see the importance of doing so. Her story — the story of a person who overcomes long odds to create a new life in a new town — runs parallel to the story of Las Vegas growing into a resort mecca from a dusty supply stop along the railway to elsewhere. White knows that she and her siblings are getting older: Stories like theirs, the last of the sharecroppers, are quickly dying out.

“One of these days,” White said with a sly smile, “I’m going to sit down with a tape recorder and I’m going to record.”