What do you do when no one is listening? When no one pays attention to the needs of families in your community? When bureaucrats, politicians, and society as a whole turns a blind eye to poverty and hunger? If you are Ruby Duncan, you take the neighborhood kids for steak and lobster. Then you proudly go to jail.
“They were going to handcuff us,” Duncan recalls of an eat-in protest at a Strip Casino. “We told the police, ‘You don’t have to handcuff us; we know we’re going to jail. Come on, let’s go.’”
The night was Duncan’s way of protesting cuts to Welfare Rights. She and others had “taken a busload of kids out and we let them into the Palms Room at the Stardust and they sat down,” she said. “Everybody was moving or getting up. We took over the whole room.”
Duncan and her accomplice for the evening Mary Wesley made sure the kids were eating steak and lobster that night. It’s likely that longtime partners Rosie Seals, Alversa Beals, and Emma Stampley were closely involved as well. “Boy, the kids said, ooh, we sure did eat good,” Duncan continued. Once the kids finished and they were ready to leave, Duncan noticed security guards had gathered to make sure the group paid for the meals. “I said, ‘What’s wrong, officer?” she recalled of the interaction with security who had blocked the exits. “’Well, the kids can’t go out until they pay.’ I said, ‘Y’all going to let these kids stand here and pee on themselves?’ I said, ‘These kids got to go to the bathroom.’” The guards relented and the children went home with other accomplices waiting outside. Duncan and Wesley were left, so they got arrested, which was clearly part of the plan. Talking to local press after the incident, Duncan recalls, “I just explained to them that it was important for us to do what we did; to let them know that our children need fresh vegetables, fruit, food, meats, and milk instead of the commodities we were getting.”
Born in Tallulah, Louisiana in 1932, Duncan followed family to Las Vegas in 1952 seeking higher wages and a better way of life. Duncan’s life had its ups and downs, but things took a turn for the worse after falling while working in the kitchen at the Sahara Hotel in 1966. After a year of being in and out of the hospital and not working, Duncan found herself a single mom with seven children and living on welfare.
“I hated being on welfare,” Duncan said. “I came out of the country and I always believed in working and being independent. To be on welfare and have to answer to someone and have people watching to see if a man comes to your house... to answer to social workers, to tell them that, yes, my friend gave me twenty-five dollars to help me out to do this, to buy a pair of shoes or a pair of pants [and] they would take that away from you.”
This experience would be the seed of discontent planted in Duncan. The stories her friends would tell her of welfare investigators conducting searches at their homes would nurture that discontent. “They would bust in, knock on your door at midnight and bust in,” she said. “They were all up in your closet, all under your bed, everywhere and you wondered what the world is going on. Your children are being frightened. They never did me that way, but they did so many of my friends that way.”
This would lead Duncan to attend a meeting of other mothers on Welfare where she would be selected as a leader. “All of a sudden somebody out of the blue said, ‘I nominate Ruby Duncan.’ I said, ‘Huh-uh, no, no, no, no; I don’t know how to be no chairperson; I don’t know how to be a president,’” Duncan recalls. “They said, ‘Well, you’ll learn; don’t none of us know, but we’re going to learn.’ And they said, ‘You’re going to be it.’” Duncan never looked back.
For the decades since, Duncan has been a hard charging advocate for the poor and disadvantaged. Her journey flowed through community gatherings, eat-ins, committee meetings, protests, State Legislature testimony, boards, Congressional hearings, The Oval Office, and the creation of Operation Life, which she ran until 1990 when she retired. Duncan was also instrumental in the 1971 march on the Las Vegas Strip chronicled in Annelise Orleck’s 2006 book Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. That year McCall’s Magazine listed her first among women making the most significant contribution to the nation.
“I am very aware of the need for affordable child care, so that women in situations like mine can go to work and support their children, knowing the children are being well cared for,” she said in her remarks as an appointee to the White House’s Conference on American Families in 1980. “I am very aware too, that women in situations like mine must be employed and achieve economic independence so they can provide for their families.” “My children have struggled with the burdens of poverty and race,” she continued. “I do not feel that the single parent family structure in my household should represent an additional burden for them. I want my children to feel good and proud of our family, and to create healthy families of their own.”
Through it all, Duncan remained focused on making the community better through empowering people, never letting her successes change her. “I remember [Nevada Governor] Grant Sawyer asking me one time, he said, ‘You know one thing, you are so wonderful.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Governor.’ I would always call him governor. He said, ‘You know some people have been where you’ve been, go where you go, do what you do, and their head gets so big you can’t put your arm around it,’ He said, ‘But you stay the same.’ I said, ‘You know something, Governor, I’m the same because I know who I am and thank God for me.’ He said, ‘You’re wonderful,’ and he walked away.”
Written by Aaron Mayes