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New Exhibit Captures Las Vegas' Changing African-American Community

jon-ponder-profile-1.jpg

Jeff Scheid

Jon Ponder is the CEO and founder of the group Hope for Prisoners, which works to re-integrate former prisoners back into society.

It wasn’t too long ago that the name, Mississippi of the West, was used to derisively describe Las Vegas. 

It referred to the city’s sharp segregation of whites from African Americans, especially along the Las Vegas Strip where not even famous black entertainers were allowed to stay.  

With groundbreaking moves in the 1960s and 70s, that began to change.  

A new photo exhibit presents a visual quilt of those who not only broke ground in the African-American community but a younger generation that is moving forward.  

Jeff Scheid photographed 25 people for the exhibit, and Erica Vital-Lazare wrote the narratives to go with the photos.

Scheid told KNPR's State of Nevada that he had wanted to do a project like this for 30 years and after leaving the Las Vegas Review-Journal two years ago, he was free to explore projects like this.

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Scheid said he had known Vital-Lazare for several years and her connections to the African-American community allowed him to connect with his subjects and take the intimate portraits he was looking to do.

But narrowing down the list of people was not easy, in fact, Vital-Lazare said they're looking to expand the project. She said when picking people to profile she thought about the people who had donated time, energy and effort to the community. 

“For me, I was driven initially by those faces that just popped immediately to mind, those people I knew were doing soul work in the community,” she said.

Vital-Lazare knew many of the people on the list and some were close friends but even with that intimate knowledge, she wanted more when she interviewed them.

“I wanted to go deeper into their histories into what actually made them the activist, the artist, the great talents, the community voices that they were,” she said. 

She said one of the most powerful interviews was with Ruby Duncan. Duncan became an activist for poor women and children in Southern Nevada after finding herself on welfare while trying to provide for her six children. 

Duncan led marches down the Las Vegas Strip, which even stopped operations at Caesars Palace in the 60s. 

Scheid said Duncan wanted to be photographed at the elementary school named in her honor. He arranged a photo shoot with her and the children at the school.

Ruby Duncan with her "kids" at Ruby Duncan Elementary School/Photo by Jeff Scheid

Scheid asked if it would be okay if the children gave her a bear hug and she quickly said yes but the photographer did get nervous when the kids started hugging her.

“All these kids started dog piling on top of her and I’m thinking, ‘My God! She’s 88 years old!’ But she kept on and she had a smile,” he said.

Scheid said looking back at the photo now reminds him how much Las Vegas has changed because of efforts by people like Duncan. The children in the picture represent all different ethnicities and backgrounds.

“I really think it affected all of the community in Las Vegas,” he said.

Now, Las Vegas is one of the most diverse cities in the country, he said.

Scheid chose to capture all of his subjects in black and white pictures instead of color. 

"I think if I had shot in color the eye would have gone all over the place," he said, "Here in black and white your eye goes to their faces." 

Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV/Photo by Jeff Scheid

For Scheid, the project went beyond just taking pictures of influential people in the Las Vegas' African-American community.

“This has actually been a journey for me," he said, "This has been inspirational.”

The exhibit is in the rotunda of the Clark County Government Center through March 16. 

Guests

Jeff Scheid, photographer; Erica Vital-Lazare, professor of English, College of Southern Nevada

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