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Ruby Duncan, A Las Vegas Activist Still Fighting For Welfare Rights

Ruby Duncan with children who attended Ruby Duncan Elementary School.
Jeff Scheid

Ruby Duncan with children who attended Ruby Duncan Elementary School.

(Editor's Note: This interview contains language that some listeners might find offensive)

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It comes at a time when the country and state are dealing with big racial issues.  

These issues were highlighted last year by protests throughout Nevada and the country, after the killing of Geroge Floyd in Minneapolis. Racism has always been a stain on American culture, and legendary Las Vegan Ruby Duncan, who at 88 remains an activist for women's rights, experienced it in Louisiana where she grew up and later when she was 18 and moved to Las Vegas.


On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I never interacted with Dr. King, but I did go to the last dinner that they gave him here. I think it was the Sahara. I’m not quite sure, but it was one of the hotels on the Strip. I went to listen to him. I never did get to talk to him.”

On life as an African-American woman in Las Vegas in the early 60s?

“To live in the 60s here in Las Vegas was good, but we had our problems with going to the hotels on the Strip and we could not go into the shows during the early part of the 60s. I do remember when the civil rights whole story came about that help Black people have a chance to go in and enjoy the whole shows. It was really interesting. You could get a job at one hotel, work there eight hours and you could just walk across and go to work at the other hotel at a second job. That was good for us. Jobs were plentiful at the time. Las Vegas was growing like crazy."

What led you to get involved in activism?

"My advocacy came about because I hated the welfare department. I literally hate the welfare system. [After getting injured on the job] I had to go on welfare. I thought that was the most miserable thing that any human being could go through. The so-called welfare system is so abusive and ridiculous. At that time, they would go by women’s houses at midnight to try to see if men were there because the husband could not stay at the home with the family. If he didn’t have a job to take that family, he could not stay at home. He would have to move out, and the state would take care of us. The welfare system stresses poor women out. Not only do they get stressed out every day with children, and at that time, I had seven. At the time, my children and I had to live off I think it was something like $290 a month. Then we had to go down to the county to get cheese and flour – no fruits. You didn’t have enough to buy great vegetables. It was just totally unimaginable."

"I wanted to go to work, but I couldn’t just go do a job. I knew I could do a sitting job, but the welfare department said I couldn’t work at all. If I worked, they would take part of the $290 back from me. So, I had to stay at home. Which was good for me, because I was truly unable to work. That has caused me disability my entire life."

When did you decide to organize to fight the welfare system?

"I called the [Las Vegas] Sun newspaper. I told them I was on welfare and I was sick of it. I wanted to go to work and the welfare department didn’t want me to go to work and I was disabled. I knew I could sit and answer phones. I thought that they would go after the welfare department and ask them loads of questions about what they were doing to welfare mothers. That didn’t happen."

Looking back, would you say that was a blessing in disguise?

"That was the greatest blessing in disguise. That was a whole development because there was a need to talk about the welfare system. That is how I developed as an advocate. Getting into that gave so much warmth to me, knowing that women throughout the community were on welfare."

"I started talking to my next-door neighbor. I went to my neighbors to talk to them, but a lot of them didn’t want to say they were on welfare. I then just started walking around the projects, myself and a couple of the ladies that lived next door. We organized so many women that were tired – sick and tired – of the welfare department. That’s how we got started. I love that the welfare department really woke me up."

What would you say about your legacy?

"My legacy isn’t over yet. I’m continuing to work and do certain advocacy. I love it. To look back at it, I love what I’ve done because with the advocacy that myself and the women that were with me, we brought about food stamps into the state of Nevada. We brought about the women, infants and children, which is called WIC, for women that are pregnant up to the children are five years of age throughout this whole United States and its territories."

"I feel like I’m the greatest grandmother and great-grandmother of the whole universe practically. I just love it! Whenever I see pregnant moms throughout this community, before COVID came along, I would always ask them, ‘Are you on WIC?’ [When they say no] I say I want you to call, and I told them who to call. Tell them Ruby Duncan told you."

"I spent time lobbying the whole legislature. That was the greatest job that I ever. I didn’t know I could do it. The people that were up there lobbying for the Strip hotels and the big businesses were so kind and sweet. They would help me and tell me who to talk to. Sometimes some of them would even help me talk to people."

Did you ever experience racism?

"Oh my God how much! Yes! My uncle he was running for the NAACP, and he had to run for his life because the Ku Klux Klan, they were going to kill him."

"I went to school in a church house in the country. I guess I walked about three miles every day to school. They would pick the white kids up in a school bus and take them downtown. The white kids in the bus would be screaming at me and calling me n****r. I didn’t know what that means. I know I wasn’t one. So to me, they weren’t talking to me. So, I just kept walking. Racism is a dog throughout this country."

What did you experience as far as racism in Las Vegas?

"Being a maid, there was racism, but working at the Sahara hotel and the coffee shop as a short order cook was not bad at all. I always did my work. There wasn’t time for conversations to me. When I was a maid at the Flamingo Hotel and a maid at some of the motels, the housekeepers would talk to you like - so degrading."

"All throughout my organizing, there has been racism, but I ignored it because you can’t let racism define you. You must know that there is a great life and let it eat the person that’s trying to play racism toward you, let that eat them up. I move on.

Do you see work that needs to be done in Las Vegas in terms of equality and rights for people who are minorities?

"Oh my God – yes! Since all of the people, the women that were with me have passed on practically, now what I see is a group of wonderful, loving, warm young people, who love to talk with me, wanting to know and that’s what I would love to give them whenever the time is right and the COVID has gone south or north or wherever its going. Young people – I just love young people. You gotta vote. That’s the only voice you’ve got."

Guest: Ruby Duncan, Activist for Welfare Rights

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.
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