KNOCKING AND WALKING AND ASKING
Debilitating on-the-job injury propelled Ruby Duncan out of work in the hotels and into the life of an activist. As cofounder and director of OPERATION LIFE, an anti-poverty, nonprofit organization, Duncan fought for and succeeded in bringing a medical clinic, jobs program, infill housing and a library to the Westside. Motivated into action by Duncan’s charismatic leadership and determination to elevate quality of life for women and children, the Nevada Welfare Rights Organization led a historic march on the Strip in 1971, joined by such luminaries as Jane Fonda, George Wiley, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Her efforts ushered in the Federal Food Stamps program and WIC for Nevadans. In 2010, Ruby Duncan Elementary was opened in the valley’s northwest. In 2018, Dr. Ruby Duncan was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from UNLV.
You’ve got to know that I grew up and out of the cotton fields and backwoods of Tallulah, Louisiana. I come straight out the cotton patch. One of my uncles was a big construction guy for Boulder Dam. I was a young girl each time he came back, and all of my family decided to start migrating out here. I was 19. My aunts were working on the Strip. One was at the old El Rancho; the rest were working at a couple of different hotels as maids. For ten years I did not like Las Vegas. Blacks weren’t allowed on the Strip unless they were working. They could not go into the hotels. My husband was stationed at Nellis; therefore, I began to take it in a little bit more. During those years, too, I was being pregnant. Altogether, I’m the mother of seven. The first job I had was with Hank Henry’s family. Hank Henry was an entertainer at the Silver Slipper. He was a comedian. I didn’t want to go to the hotels just yet. It would have taken me away from my family too long every day. We bought a home and that’s when I went to work at the Stardust. Doing thirteen rooms a day, cleaning them, it was not my forte. They fired me. I decided, “Okay, I’m going back out here and try some more.” I went to the Flamingo and got a job from five in the evening till one in the morning. A lot happened between all this I’m talking about. I was organized by some ladies doing door knocking. I had never in my life had heard of a legislature. Never in my life heard anything about economic development. Coming out the country, these were new words and new programs. They would have classes about how to write your resume, all that was interesting to me. When all that was over, I worked for the state. That’s when I learned about welfare rights. The only reason I could work [after a fall and many surgeries] was because I was sitting. I was on welfare then. Oh, I hated it. Welfare to me was like a snake had bitten me. At that time, my husband had gone his way. I’d moved in the projects on D and Owens. It was just right around the corner from the job. I didn’t like what I was getting and asked other mothers about what they were getting, and we started a walking campaign. We just kept walking and knocking and asking. All of a sudden, National Welfare Rights wants two of us to come to Washington. The head guy, George Wiley, asked, “What do you all want to do?” I said, “We want to go down on the Strip. Maybe they’ll understand what we’re asking for, that we’re not joking. Our children need fresh food, real clothing.” And we went down the Strip. I’m almost the last one. I had to speak to three funerals this year. And three last year, and more before then. We need a lot of what we call love. Loving each other, caring for each other. Wanting each other to have, practically, what the other one has. We need to have something to offer our people. Come together every so often — organizing that’s how we got out.