Black Mothers Bet on Themselves and Changed Las Vegas—Can Their Ideas Still Change America?Roundup
tags: poverty, civil rights, African American history, urban history, civil disobedience, Las Vegas, womens history, Protest, Welfare Rights Movement
Editor's note: Read HNN's recent interview with Annelise Orleck.
On March 20, 2023, Storming Caesars Palace, a documentary directed by Hazel Gurland-Pooler, premiered on PBS. It was based on the 2005 book Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, by Dartmouth history professor Annelise Orleck, which was rereleased in an expanded edition this month. It chronicles the remarkable story of a group of poor mothers who in 1971 shut down the Las Vegas Strip in protest of welfare cuts and then founded Operation Life, one of the most successful programs of the War on Poverty era.
I didn’t know much about the women activists of Clark County Welfare Rights Organization when we first met in Las Vegas for casino Chinese food on a very hot Labor Day in 1992. A presidential race was taking place at the time, between incumbent George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who, among his many campaign promises, vowed to “end welfare as we know it.” In some real and still provocative ways, the women I met that day had actually fulfilled that promise in Las Vegas back in the ’70s and ’80s. These mothers and grandmothers, who were also hotel maids and kitchen staff, domestic workers, and cocktail waitresses, became incensed after a lifetime of mistreatment by violent men, field bosses, hotel supervisors, and now state and county welfare authorities. They fought back, first in a series of street demonstrations and direct-action protests, and then by creating a remarkable, comprehensive anti-poverty program in their city that remains a model today.
At the time, my first book, Common Sense and a Little Fire, a collective biography of immigrant Jewish women labor activists in the first half of the 20th century, was nearly complete. I was looking for another movement of poor women to chronicle and visiting with Maya Miller, a friend and a northern Nevada progressive and philanthropist who had been deeply involved in welfare rights work in the 1960s and ’70s. She began to tell stories about a group of women she had worked with over the previous 30 years and suggested they might have a story I’d like to explore.
Then she uttered the words every historian longs to hear. She said her basement contained a treasure trove of documents about these women and their movement that no one had yet looked at—legal filings, newspaper clippings, speech transcripts, grant proposals, and photographs. Without giving it another thought, she called the leader of this movement, a former hotel kitchen worker named Ruby Duncan, and said that I was coming to Vegas to interview her. Ruby said she could be ready on very short notice. We arranged to get together for lunch at the Union Plaza Hotel in Old Las Vegas. She said she would bring some of her colleagues, and I arranged to fly from Carson City to Las Vegas.
On the grounds of a former railroad station at the end of Fremont Street in Old Las Vegas stood a “sawdust and carpet” joint, tucked into a part of town where neon cowboys and showgirls topped hotel signs. It was a Las Vegas that my parents probably knew but one I had never imagined—more Wild West than chrome and glass glitz. Ruby would later tell me that she chose that place for our meeting because it was close to the Westside, where most of the ladies still lived. They had worked in hotels and taverns there before desegregation in 1965, occasionally finding work on the Strip, too. There they had gotten their first exposure to interracial class solidarity via the ever-powerful Culinary Workers Union. I watched penny jackpots hit by alternately desperate and elated customers in the smoky room.
Soon, a colorfully dressed line of eight Black women in their 60s entered and walked slowly toward me—clearly, they were not there for the slots. Leading the group was high-cheeked, high-voiced Ruby Duncan wearing a flowing dress she had designed. She stuck out her hand, introduced herself, and turned toward the women behind her. With a sweeping gesture, she announced, “This is Professor Annelise Orleck. She teaches history at Dartmouth College.” Then, with a dramatic pause I could see had served her well over the years, she continued, “Ladies, we are history.”
We sat at a large round table, with the soft, cyclical chiming of slots behind us, and ordered an old-timey Vegas casino Chinese lunch: egg rolls, lo mein, egg drop soup, rice and lobster sauce. And then, I began to get acquainted with the women around the table. Emma Stampley, the slow-talking Mississippi migrant, was the group’s housing expert, a tenant organizer who tried to get the women to do land banking as a way of making their organization economically self-sufficient.
Former Texan Essie Henderson, a devout Muslim, was an edgy, funny business maven—her highly successful Black beauty supply company became the proof that this poor Black women’s movement could make good use of federal Minority Business Development Agency funds to incubate vibrant small businesses. Rosie Seals, short with slicked back hair, let me know that she was the one who had founded Clark County Welfare Rights Organization in 1967. Ever after, some viewed her as the movement’s most prickly member; though, in her view, she was just making sure her comrades stayed in touch with their roots. Quiet, steady, Alversa Beals did not speak for a while but emanated a radiance that made me want to go back to hear her story. A vegetable gardener, fisherwoman, and baker extraordinaire who fed half the Westside at times when federal aid dried up, the sixth-grade-educated Beals had helped Seals found CCWRO and then, for two decades, seamlessly, professionally, and without drama ran the office at Operation Life, the anti-poverty agency the women founded in 1972.