Historian Claytee D. White Prizes Diversity in Collecting City’s Stories

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Where Las Vegas Boulevard ends, Claytee D. White’s voyage begins. The first director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV’s University Libraries strives to unveil the colors of the city that aren’t emitted from the neon lights. Her passion for history is helping to develop nuances to the image of Las Vegas through detailed interviews recorded for posterity.

White, who arrived in Las Vegas in 1992, said she learned many additional methods of collecting history, including oral history, while earning her master’s in history at UNLV. Building on Professor Ralph Roske’s work from the 1970s and ’80s, White and others in the History Department were able to continue recording histories, housing them in Special Collections.

The Oral History Research Center, founded in 2003, has compiled such oral history projects as All That Jazz (entertainment from the perspective of band members), Heart to Heart (a history of early health care in Las Vegas), UNLV @ Fifty (marking the university’s milestone birthday in 2007) and the African American Experience. The Center is working on the Jewish Heritage Project and completing the West Charleston: Ward One project.

“Oral history allows everyone to participate,” White says. Giving residents a voice says to the world, “[My] memory is just as good as the mayor of the city. Just because I’m a maid, my participation in an event is just as important as some ‘name person’ in that event. Oral history allows across-the-board versions of history.”

These memories provide unique windows across the city and across generations. “Oral history allows us to vividly see those connections. If I want to look at gambling, ranching, or whatever Las Vegas institution, I can fill in all the gaps. It gives us a connecting fiber to see the evolution of events on any topic,” White says.

A good example is the Heart to Heart Collection, which will allow students of UNLV’s impending medical school to connect with the region’s past health care efforts. “Students [can] build upon it because we have [interviews] on early nursing and nursing school. If we take all of that, we can see a complete evolution in health care in Las Vegas.”

Las Vegas “is a caring town that has a vibrant, cohesive community,” says White, who was named Vegas Seven’s Best Keeper of Our History earlier this year. “When you look at the people who live in Summerlin, the West Charleston neighborhoods, Sunrise Mountain, John S. Park, these are very old communities … it has a core with a great memory.”

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