Ruby Duncan came to Las Vegas in 1952. She dedicated her life to helping the poor of Las Vegas, especially women and children. She founded Operation Life, an anti-poverty program, to improve the lives of the people living in Las Vegas’ Westside. Her efforts during the 1970s and 1980s helped create welfare reform, educational opportunities, jobs and other much-needed services.
Ruby Duncan was born in Tallulah, Louisiana in 1932. As a child she went to school part-time and worked at the Ivory Plantation chopping cotton until she was in the ninth grade. After quitting school, she went to work full-time as a waitress and barmaid. Duncan was raped and gave birth to a son as result of the attack. She was forced to send her son to live with a relative in Las Vegas. In 1952, Duncan came to Las Vegas to be with her son.
Las Vegas was a disappointment to Duncan and she experienced much of the same poverty and racism that had plagued her life in the South. She went to work in hotels as a maid. When she was fired from her job as a maid, Duncan was forced to go on welfare. She was married and then divorced, with six children to support. She left the welfare rolls when she found a job at the Sahara Hotel as a cook, but she was injured while working and went back onto welfare to support her family.
Nevada cut 75% of aid to welfare mothers in 1971, prompting Duncan to activism. She organized welfare rights demonstrations, eat-ins, and eventually two large marches on the Strip. She became a recognized leader of the black community.
In 1972, she founded Operation Life, a community-run organization, whose original goals were to promote welfare reform and improve the lives of those living in west Las Vegas. Duncan served as executive director from its beginning until her health forced her to retire in 1990. Operation Life was able to make important changes in West Las Vegas, including bringing a medical clinic and library to the community, promoting economic development, creating housing, day care for working mothers, education, job training and improved medical services.
Ruby Duncan served as a delegate for Nevada at the 1980 Democratic convention. She has been the recipient of many local and national awards for her continued dedication to women’s and children’s rights.
For further biographical information:
Orleck, Annelise. 2005. Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty.
Boston: Beacon Press.
Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections.
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