When journalists, historians, researchers, and documentarians need a resource or an interview, Claytee White is often on the list. The inaugural director of the UNLV Oral History Research Center has spent the last 20 years developing an extensive knowledge of the city’s history and its people.
In 2022 alone, she conducted nearly 80 interviews, presentations, and tours of the Westside, Las Vegas’ historically Black community.
The UNLV Oral History Research Center contains an extensive collection of nearly 4,000 personal histories of the people who have made Southern Nevada such a phenomenal place to live, work, or visit. White has made the center a phenomenal repository for diverse voices.
“In school, we learn about history from the top down,” White says. “We study presidents and Congress and the laws they pass. Sometimes on a state level, we get that same level of history, with governors and legislators. But we rarely hear about the experiences of the people affected by those laws, those decisions.”
For example, you might know that Jay Sarno and Stanley Mallin founded Caesars Palace, but you probably have not heard about Ruth Eppenger D’Hondt, who grew up in Las Vegas and was one of the first Black cocktail servers at Caesars Palace.
“Through oral histories, you hear perspectives you’ve never heard before. That makes history exciting,” says White. “It gives it the human touch.”
As the center, part of the UNLV Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, celebrates 20 years, White will add her own oral history to the collection.
“Claytee has interviewed thousands of individuals about their experiences living and working in Las Vegas, learning why people chose to move or stay here,” says Maggie Farrell, dean of libraries. “As we look back on her two decades at the Center, we wanted to recognize her as an icon in the community. And what better way to celebrate her work than for her to share her own oral history.”
White’s live oral history will be collected at a special invitation-only event for Libraries donors next week. As she prepares for “The Oral History of Claytee White,” she is looking back at how she came to UNLV and the legacy she hopes to leave with the Oral History Research Center.
Like many Las Vegans, White didn’t grow up in Las Vegas. She was born the fifth of eight children (and the first daughter) to Gladys and Charlie White, sharecroppers from Ahoskie, North Carolina, a small town of approximately 5,000.
Upon graduating high school, White was ready for a change from the pastoral life of North Carolina’s Inner Banks. She spent two years at North Carolina Central University, a historically Black public university located in Durham, before college life became too expensive for the family.
“So I quit school and moved to Washington, D.C., where I lived and worked for two years,” says White. “It was a wonderful time in my life, an amazing time. But then I got the opportunity to go to Los Angeles and left.”
For 22 years, from 1970 to 1992, White made her home in the City of Angels. “I never wanted to be cold,” White says of her move to the West Coast. She finished her bachelor’s degree in social work at California State University, Los Angeles, attending classes at night. Over the years, she worked several jobs during the day, ranging from an accounting firm to a switchboard operator.
“I worked with a woman who had a British accent, and me, with my Southern accent – we were the voice of the company,” White recalls.
After earning her degree, White moved into jobs in the social work field, eventually working at the NAACP in an office located near Leimert Park, a trendy part of the Los Angeles Black community.
But while the weather was just what she wanted, the end of her LA years were less ideal.
“Toward the end, I was unhappy,” says White. “I was unhappy in my home life, and I was unhappy in my work life. So I decided one day, it was time to leave.”
The turning point came in the spring of 1992 with the beating of Rodney King and the civil unrest that followed.
“I decided that I was going to move to Las Vegas,” says White. “This is driving distance. I can pack a couple of suitcases and I’m on my way. That’s what I did. That’s how I came to Las Vegas.”
Becoming a Rebel
The move gave her a chance to rethink her choice of jobs, too.
“When I came to Las Vegas in 1992, I had the leisure time to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Most of us never get that opportunity. We start that job. We work it for 25 to 35 years,” she says. “I have a brother who worked at the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia for 47 years. And because of our background, that kind of job, operating a crane and all of that, was amazing. But I wanted something different.”
White had loved going to school, so she started calling UNLV to find out what opportunities were available.
“I got this woman on the telephone in the history department, Joanne Goodwin, and started asking her all kinds of questions,” recalls White. “‘What’s the difference between women’s history and women’s studies? Black history and Black studies? And she would engage me in conversation.”
Eventually White enrolled in a couple of classes to see if she could keep up with 20-year-old college students. “It worked out wonderfully,” says White, and she went on to enroll in the master’s program in American history.
At the time, the UNLV History Department, under the leadership of professor Eugene Moehring and Goodwin, began offering course work in oral history. White was among the first students to sign up.
“There must have been seven or eight of us, all women, who were all nontraditional students and we all wanted to learn oral history,” recalls White. The students trained with several regional experts through workshops and seminars. “By the time it was over, we thought we knew everything, so we said, let’s do an oral history project.”
With Goodwin acting as advisor, the group began collecting oral histories from women in gaming and entertainment.
“Everything written about Las Vegas was all about men; it’s all about gaming and men,” White says. “We wanted to do a project just about women. Someone decided to focus on owners and managers, and someone else decided to interview dancers and showgirls, and someone else in the group wanted to talk to cocktail waitresses.”
As the only Black woman in the group, White wanted to focus on the Black community. A trip to her beauty shop helped connect her to Clonie Gay, daughter of civil rights leaders Jimmy and Hazel Gay.
That first inquiry led White to several more oral history interviews, including Anna Bailey, the first Black woman to work as a dancer on the Las Vegas Strip. She also interviewed one of the first Black newspaper reporters in the city.
“They told us to interview two or three people, but I probably interviewed 10. I couldn't stop, didn't want to stop,” says White.
Just as importantly as igniting her passion for oral history, the project connected her to the rich history of the historically Black Westside and Black people living in Las Vegas.
After finishing the master’s program at UNLV, White continued her studies with a doctoral degree, choosing the College of William and Mary so that she could also care for her elderly mother in nearby Ahoskie.
Dr. Harold Boyer changed the course of White’s life. The physician was a proud civic booster and a prominent member of the Las Vegas Rotary Club, and he wanted to collect stories from members of the club. White was invited back to Las Vegas to provide training for the Rotarians on how to collect oral histories.
“They heard about how much work was involved with conducting oral histories and asked how much it would cost to fund someone else to do the project,” says White, who in the meantime had finished the classroom work for her doctoral program, and begun working on a dissertation.
At the same time, former UNLV Special Collections & Archives Director Peter Michel and the UNLV History Department were talking about what to do with the oral histories that had been collected by students and faculty in the department. These conversations eventually morphed into the development of the UNLV Oral History Research Center, with startup funding provided by Boyer. Their first project would be to capture stories of early Las Vegas Rotary Club members and ensure future oral history projects would follow. But they would need a director.
Michel called White, whose mother had unexpectedly passed away just a few weeks prior. As she was cleaning out her mother’s home, he told her about the new Oral History Research Center and invited her to apply to be the director.
Around the same time, fellow UNLV alumna Joyce Moore, who was already working in Special Collections, invited White to her upcoming wedding.
“Joyce said my wedding is in a week, so why don’t you come to the wedding and apply. So that’s what I did,” says White. “And that’s how I got my dream job.”
Two Decades of Oral History
As the inaugural director of the Oral History Research Center, White was tasked with developing a robust program for UNLV. Over the years, the Center has conducted 13 major projects, starting with the Boyer Early Las Vegas Oral History Project. An exhibit documenting all of these works is currently on display on the first floor of Lied Library.
The most meaningful project for White has been the Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas project. Growing out of her graduate studies work, this project brought in hundreds of stories of Black Las Vegans and documented the diverse experiences of this community from the early days and The Great Migration through the Civil Rights movement, the Consent decree and desegregation and to the present day.
“That project was where I started getting to know the people here in Las Vegas who looked like me and I was just fascinated by it,” says White. “I'd heard of the Great Migration. But before the project, I'd never talked to people on the other side of that migration effort to find out how they traveled across the country. So from these oral histories I got to see what the Great Migration looked like from the inside.”
Over the years, White has collected stories from people from all walks of life, and has made concerted efforts to collect histories from underrepresented groups. The center’s projects have included the Jewish community, the Latinx community, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and more.
Yet there was one she wished she hadn’t had the privilege to develop: the Remembering 1 October project followed the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival.
“This is probably the most powerful, most impactful, small collection of interviews that we will ever do,” says White. “We talked to doctors, the coroner, people who were actually there, people who took people back and forth to the hospital, people who donated blood, and the people who started the Resiliency Center.”
The resulting collection of oral histories and photos were collected into Healing Las Vegas: The Las Vegas Community Healing Garden in response to the 1 October Tragedy edited by Stefani Evans, a longtime project manager in the OHRC, and Donna A. McAleer, retired director of publications at UNLV and a part-time editor in the OHRC.
After 20 years leading the Oral History Research Center, White isn’t done. Another soon-to-be-announced project is on the horizon. What to know more? Give her a call.
“Las Vegas is an amazing city. I'm sure that you could go to Lincoln, Nebraska, or any city or any place in the country and find amazing stores,” says White. “But here in Las Vegas, you'll find stories about the Las Vegas Strip. And if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find out all kinds of amazing stories about Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, Black Americans — just everybody who made this city. And they all have such rich stories to tell.”