Women’s History Month Las Vegas-style

Happy Women’s History Month!

If you haven’t seen it, yet, there’s still time to pick up the latest copy of Vegas Seven, in which I have three stories that celebrate badass local feminists! Its the unofficial Women’s History Month issue, by yours truly!

First, check out my profile of Cristina Hernandez, the director of the Jean Nidetch Women’s Center at UNLV. As long-time readers may recall, Hernandez has been a friend of The Sin City Siren for years and a colleague in progressive activism for more than a decade. She has worked with the Sin Sity Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – of Red Dress fame – and has been an outspoken champion for the rights of the oppressed. Read about her here.

Another story that long-time Sirens will be familiar with is that of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada (WRIN), which collects Nevada women’s history and runs the excellent NEW Leadership program each summer. The big news here is that WRIN is working with the Clark County School District to develop a comprehensive Nevada women’s history curriculum. Once finished, the curriculum will be a benchmark for districts everywhere.

“It’s really kind of landmark because I think there are still three women covered in the curriculum – Sarah Winnemucca, Helen Stewart, if it’s being taught down here, and Ann Martin, the suffragist,” WRIN director Joanne Goodwin told me. “And there isn’t much, if anything, after 1920.”

An excellent way to spend a few free minutes is to peruse the WRIN history archives, which has dozens of oral history and videographies of seminal women in Nevada – from the first female national airline executive to stories of the first showgirls! Read about that here.

The story I’m most proud of is the one that is closest to my heart, which also happens to be the cover story. You all know how much I love writing and talking about the Westside Mothers, also known as Operation Life. This is the inspiring story of a group of poor black mothers from the South who staged one of the largest marches on the Las Vegas Strip in order to get welfare rights and feed their babies. The march garnered national media attention with celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Dave Dellinger, and Cesar Chavez participating. One of the lead organizers, Ruby Duncan, would later testify before Congress on poverty issues and became a close advisor on poverty issues to President Jimmy Carter. The Operation Life grassroots community organization would bring the first library, health care clinic, and small business classes to the Westside.

And because this is a story that I just can’t stop myself from writing about, here are some of the out-takes that didn’t make it into print because of limited space (oh, dead trees!):

March 6, 1971 was a day when America was watching Las Vegas. On that Saturday 45 years ago the great engine of Nevada would grind to a halt, not because of a blackout or celebrity wedding gone wrong. There, on the street America practically paved with gold, the women of Operation Life made their stand. Marching 1500-strong this group of poor black women from the South marched to the heart of the Strip – Caesars Palace’s fountains glinting in the sun on one side and the blushing marquee of the Flamingo casino-hotel on the other.

“We were the one that had the strength and we were bold and we, we went after what we knew was right to do for all the ones that was in need, regardless of race or creed,” says Ruby Duncan, one of the leaders behind the historic march and a founder of the women-run Operation Life. “See, we fought that stuff. We pushed! We weren’t afraid to go where the problem was to preach it.”

After years of fighting a broken system that paid black women pennies on the welfare-dollar that white women received, staging sit-ins, getting arrested, and yes, even begging state legislators, who were not only indifferent to the suffering of poor people of color, but who turned the screws at every opportunity – the women of Operation Life were not going to be quiet. They were not going away. And they would deliver on their promise to bring Sin City to its knees in order to get “milk for the babies,” as another lead organizers, Rosie Lee Seals, who died at the age of 91 last year, told me back in 2006.

“The government told us the only way we were going to get food stamps was if a camel passed through the eye of a needle. They lied,” said Seals, a fierce advocate who suffered no fools. “We got the food stamps to feed the babies. It was just so hard. But somebody had to do it.”

But to fully understand the significance of the historic welfare rights march and its 45th anniversary this month, we have to pan way out and look way back – to see the daughters of Southern sharecroppers, picking cotton on land that barely a generation earlier was under the yoke of slavery. We need to see the sweat dripping down the backs of girls who could still find black bodies lynched in trees for daring to drink from the wrong water fountain.

Operation Life, the women who founded it and the ideas behind it, should be a well-worn chapter in Las Vegas history – not hidden behind the dust of time. Operation Life is a seminal piece of Las Vegas history.

Listen up. We’re going to church.

As a result of the segregation on the Strip during the 1940s and ‘50s, when black performers could not eat, sleep, or gamble at most properties on the Strip, the Westside blossomed. Remember, this was the era when the Sands drained the pool after headliner Sammy Davis, Jr. jumped in with his Rat Pack buddies.

Entertainers, regardless of race, flocked to what was known as the “Black Strip,” a series of black-owned clubs founded on Jackson Avenue (known then as Jackson Street), including the Ebony Club and William “Bob” Bailey’s Sugar Hill, where a young Johnny Carson would sit in on the skins. And, of course, there was the Moulin Rouge on Bonanza Road, the first integrated casino in Nevada, which opened and closed in 1955.

Jim Crow laws and the practice of redlining, including language in legal deeds such as, “no n***ers, no Chinese, and no goats,” forced black-owned businesses into the Westside. It was an area near downtown Las Vegas, so-called because it was quite literally on the west side of the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

Rosie Seals worked in the cotton fields – including the same plantation where Ruby was born and raised for a time – before moving to Las Vegas in 1951. She took an immediate dislike to the Westside, recalling in her characteristically blunt voice, “I was pregnant, hot and mad. And I had 60 cents in my pocket. I cried when I saw this place. It was so hot and it looked so dead. They didn’t even have no paved streets when I came here. I had to burrow through the dust and mud to get to the outhouse every morning.”

Ruby Duncan was close behind. After first moving to a shack behind the old World War II BMI plant in Henderson in 1952, Duncan ended up on the Westside with her infant son and a toddler, the latter of whom was the product of getting raped on the Ivory Plantation, where she had worked since age eight.

After the widowed Seals had a stroke and could not return to work, the welfare office summarily denied her claim, leaving her with seven mouths to feed and no help in sight. Then, while working at a laundry, she found out her single white coworker got a higher welfare check, even though she had fewer children.

“It was like someone gave me an electric shock,” she recalled. “[That] pissed me off enough that I finally did something.”

But Seals, a tall, tobacco-chewing Christian who was not afraid to speak truth to power in her characteristically fiery blunt way, was not about to go home and throw a pity party. She had learned about the burgeoning welfare rights movement from friends in Northern California and was ready to bring the movement to Las Vegas.

Soon, she was joined by Alversa Beals, a mother of 11, who was getting harassed by late-night “substitute father” raids – a welfare department tactic that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but was nonetheless still practiced in Las Vegas to ferret out cheats on the system. The theory was that if there was an able-bodied man in the house, women should not be on welfare.

“It was bad. It was a hard time,” she said. “The welfare check was so low it was only barely enough for food. My kids would complain to me that they didn’t want to go to school because their shoes were raggedy.”

Meanwhile, caseworkers threatened a number of times to take Beals children away, under the federal “illegitimacy” rule, which allowed the welfare department to remove children if they were fathered by “too many men.” Of course, this burden of legitimacy was bore solely by the mothers. She recalled the day a black caseworker came to her house, ready to take the children to foster care. He chastised Beals to stop crying saying, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

After Duncan became permanently disabled following a workplace accident in a casino kitchen, she too would join the growing ranks of Westside mothers who had had enough.

Finally, Saturday, March 6, 1971 came – a cold wind blowing. With Duncan in the lead, protesters walked arm-in-arm down the boulevard. Mixed in the procession were peace activists Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dave Dellinger, Jane Fonda, and Donald Sutherland as well as farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez and pacifist Dr. Benjamin Spock. As Duncan recalls, the approximately 1500-person march – which spanned a quarter mile down the Strip – was filled with welfare rights activists, who had come from “every corner of the United States.” This included Ojibwa tribe welfare recipients from North Dakota, activists from New York, Detroit, Boston, Seattle, LA, and San Francisco – the very city where Rosie Seals had first learned about the welfare rights movement just a few years earlier.

The peaceful procession was followed overhead by a police helicopter and flanked by motorcycle cops, as the women marched to the epicenter of the Strip: Caesar’s Palace.

After a second march on the Strip the following weekend, in which 250 protestors peacefully sat down across the boulevard, blocking traffic to the California border, things began to change. Nevada, which had the harshest welfare laws in the country, changed.

But there were still more fights to come, as Nevada would be the last state in the union to join the WIC and food stamps programs.

You can read the full story in Seven here.

PS: I’ve heard there’s an event from 3-5 pm on Sunday, March 13, at the Writer’s Block book store, 1020 Fremont St., which will feature Ruby Duncan. Find out more at thewritersblock.org.

Check back next week for a new column, read more of my work at Vegas Seven, follow me @TheSinCitySiren and get daily news on Facebook.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

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One thought on “Women’s History Month Las Vegas-style

  1. It is uplifting to read the Sin City Siren’s blog again. I’ve never heard this story before despite living in the Las Vegas valley for over 15 years. Thanks for telling it and I’m hoping to get a copy of Seven from my daughter who still lives there.

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