The Ruby Duncan Papers on Operation Life (1972-1992) consist of the organizational records of Operation Life Community Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that worked to improve living conditions in West Las Vegas, Nevada by providing a variety of community development services. Included are correspondence, agreements, accounting records, lease agreements, meeting materials, reports, speeches.
Finding Aid PDF
Scope and Contents Note
The Ruby Duncan Papers on Operation Life (1972-1992) contain the organizational records of Operation Life Community Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that worked to improve living conditions in West Las Vegas, Nevada by providing a variety of community development services. The collection also provides a partial documentation of the lives and struggles of West Las Vegans and the improvements they endeavored to make for their community. Included are correspondence, agreements, accounting records, lease agreements, meeting materials, reports, speeches.
Collection is open for research.
Materials in this collection may be protected by copyrights and other rights. See Reproductions and Use on the UNLV Special Collections and Archives website for more information about reproductions and permissions to publish.
The collection is divided into three series:
Series I. Administrative Files;
Series II. Community Development Services;
Series III. Personal Papers.
Material is arranged in rough alphabetical order within each sub-series.
Biographical / Historical Note
Political activist Ruby Duncan was born in Tallulah, Louisiana on June 7, 1932. Both of her parents died before she was four and she spent her youth living with various relatives in and around Tallulah, Louisiana. She attended school part-time from the age of eight until she was 14 and also worked chopping cotton at the Ivory Plantation. She then quit school to go to work full-time, first as a waitress and then as a barmaid. In 1953 Duncan left Louisiana for Las Vegas, Nevada. She found her aunt living near Henderson in a shack that did not have running water. Duncan found work as a maid and nanny in private homes. She later found higher paying jobs as a maid at the Stardust Hotel and then the Flamingo Hotel. It was at the Flamingo Hotel that Duncan first began to fight for better working conditions. Duncan walked off the job and the rest of the maids followed; she was fired the next day.
Because of the financial strain, Duncan reluctantly found herself on welfare struggling to support her family. She went in search of a position on the Las Vegas Strip in kitchen work that would provide her with higher wages. She worked at the Sahara Hotel until she injured herself when she slipped on cooking oil. Unable to work for nearly a year because of the injury, Duncan was forced to again utilize welfare to support her family.
In 1969 the Las Vegas Sun newspaper published an article based on an interview with Duncan. After that, Duncan started to speak out publicly about her situation and those of others like her. She started becoming politically active about her cause and found others who were prepared to be active as well. In 1971 Nevada cut approximately seventy-five percent of welfare aid to women with children. This act infuriated Duncan and served as the impetus for her social activism. Starting with small demonstrations that culminated into two protest marches down the Las Vegas Strip that drew some 6000 people including Jane Fonda, Sammy Davis Jr., and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Duncan co-founded Operation Life in 1972 to promote welfare reform, and to improve the lives of those who lived in West Las Vegas, Nevada. Beginning with a library in West Las Vegas for which Operation Life provided space, their services grew to include promoting economic development, housing development and job development to operating a medical center and administering the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) certified home counseling program.
Duncan directed Operation Life for nearly twenty years. During her tenure, Operation Life initiated many programs designed to improve the lives of people in her community, such as a drug and alcohol abuse prevention program, a youth employment program, a low-income energy assistance program, a youth recreation program, and licensed, affordable daycare with an education component. Duncan also saw the need to educate women and children about how to find jobs, keep jobs, start businesses and run businesses. Operation Life built homes under HUD’s Infill Housing Program and built "Ruby Duncan Manor" under HUD’s section 202 which provided homes to 30 elderly and handicapped residents.
Ruby Duncan was the executive director of Operation Life from its inception in 1972 until 1990 when she was forced to resign due to poor health. During her time as executive director, in addition to the improvements that she and Operation Life made to West Las Vegas, Ruby Duncan was elected as a Nevada delegate to the 1980 National Democratic Convention. She also served on President Jimmy Carter’s White House Conference on Families in 1980. She has received numerous awards and honors both locally and nationally; she has chaired various local and national organizations; and she has received commendations from senators, cabinet heads and presidents.
Ruby Duncan Papers on Operation Life, 1972-1992. MS-00367. Special Collections and Archives, UNLV Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.
Collection donated in 1996 by Ruby Duncan; accession number 96-8.
Collection was processed in 2001 by Cecily Cook. In 2017, Joyce Moore revised and enhanced the collection description to bring it up to current professional standards.
Some of the photographs in this acquisition were removed from the collection and placed in Ruby Duncan Photographs, 1972-1992. PH-00363. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.