Celebrating Black Life in Las Vegas: Honoring the Past, Shaping the Future
African Americans have played an integral role in the development of Las Vegas. It is a rich story of painful challenges and hard-earned triumphs. This panel will discuss the highs and lows of the African-American experience in Las Vegas and will also explore the HUNDRED (Historic Urban Neighborhood Design Redevelopment) Plan, the city initiative to redevelop the historic West Las Vegas neighborhood.
Special thanks to the Black Law Students Association for their outreach support for this program.
Claytee White, Director of Oral History Research Center at UNLV
Claytee D. White is the inaugural director of the Oral History Research Center for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries. She collects the history of Las Vegas and the surrounding area by gathering memories of events and experiences from longtime residents. As one of five founders of the Las Vegas Black Historical Society Inc., she chronicles the history of the Las Vegas black community that was established in 1905. Her published writings on the subject include a book chapter, encyclopedia entries, and several articles.
White received her bachelor’s degree from California State University, Los Angeles, master’s degree in history from University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and has completed work toward a doctorate at the College of William & Mary. White currently serves on the Board of Women of Diversity, the UNLV Presidential Debate Planning Committee, and the Historic Preservation Commission. White has also served on the Historic Preservation Commission for the city of Las Vegas, Nevada Humanities executive board, and is the past president of the Southwest Oral History Association.
Brenda Williams, President of West Side School Alumni Foundation
Brenda Williams is a walking success story. She has been a significant trailblazer in Las Vegas, from integrating both the banking industry in 1963, as well as the workforce at the State of Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles in 1966. She was the first African-American to work in a bank, in a non-service capacity, in the State of Nevada. After 16 years of service to the State of Nevada, she retired from the Employment Security Department. In 1988, she was the co-campaign coordinator for then Governor Richard Bryan’s successful 1988 ”Bryan for U.S Senate” campaign. She also served as Senator Bryan’s Constituent Services Representative for 12 years. She finalized her federal career after serving six years as the Community Resources Officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Williams has the distinction of being the first black female appointed to the Las Vegas City Council as Interim City Councilwoman in Ward 5 (2007), and the first black female member of the Las Vegas Planning Commission (2019).
Williams is also the founder and president of the Westside School Alumni foundation, and she is the leading force behind the award-winning book, ‘Westside School Stories: Our School, Our Community, Our Time (1923-1967)”. The Westside School Alumni Foundation played a significant role in the revitalization and renovation of the historic Westside School. Under the auspices of the Westside School Alumni Foundation Board of Directors, Williams directs financial subsistence and educational scholarships to the underserved youth of our community. In 2014, The Westside School Alumni Foundation established the annual Audrey E. James Educational Scholarship program.
David Washington, Retired Las Vegas Fire and Rescue Department Chief
After 33 years of service, David Washington retired as fire chief department director for Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. Washington was the city’s first Black fire chief. He guided the department to many major accomplishments with the assistance of what he refers to as an exceptional staff. With respect to achievements, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue retained its Insurance Services Office (ISO) Class One as well as became an accredited agency by the Center for Public Safety Excellence. After attaining these two achievements, it made the department only one of eight in the world to hold these two prestigious certifications at the same time. Once fire chief, Washington ensured that the safety of firefighters was a top priority by requiring that all new assistant chiefs became certified safety officers. The department was able to construct six new fire stations as well as increase the departments overall staffing and reduce response times.
Washington continued to be proud of the fact that they were able to establish the Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Foundation, which provides funds in the form of gift cards in $20 increments to firefighters who respond to the home of individuals who are in need due to the destruction of fire or some other emergency. Another humanitarian initiative is the Safe Place program which allows any child under the age of eighteen a safe haven at any fire station if they find themselves under threat by any person. During an exit presentation before the City Council, Washington expressed his exuberance in having been given the opportunity to serve the community. Regarding his community work, Washington has been involved in many community organizations such as the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, I Have A Dream Foundation, Camp Brotherhood/Sisterhood, Carl Holmes Executive Development Institute, Communities in Schools, United Way of Southern Nevada, New Ventures Certified Development Company, Black Business Council of Nevada, Economic Opportunity Board and many more.
During the next chapter of life, Washington has written a book entitled “The Power of P’s”. Additionally, he plans to become a substitute schoolteacher on the West Side. Finally, Washington is a 65-year resident of the Las Vegas community. He and his high school sweetheart Maria have four adult children and ten grandchildren.
LaVerne Ligon, Dancer in Hallelujah Hollywood
LaVerne Ligon is a former dance captain in the Strip’s first all-Black line of showgirls. The Strip production – MGM Grand’s Halleluah Hollywood! – was a breakthrough. Ligon supervised the six-girl line, plus two swing performers. Hallelujah Hollywood! was an opulent, $3 million salute to classic MGM musicals from impresario Donn Arden that ran from 1974 to 1980. Reviews zeroed in on the wow factor, including one from Playboy, which observed, with a kind of snide admiration, that “Hallelujah Hollywood! is everything old Hollywood has come to represent—glitter, gaudiness, glamour—turned out with that special perversity only Vegas can provide.” After the MGM Grand fire in 1980, Hallelujah Hollywood! was reworked by Arden into Jubilee!, debuting in 1981 at the rebuilt resort, which became Bally’s in 1985. Jubilee! was the longest-running Vegas production show and the last true vestige of the Strip’s once-dominant showgirl aesthetic until it closed in 2016. Many of the Hallelujah Hollywood! cast segued to the new show, including, briefly, Ligon, who retired in 1982.
After her retirement, Ligon opened the Simba Talent Agency, a dance school for at-risk youth.