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Putting a lens on Historic Black Las Vegas

February 26, 2023 by  
Filed under Feature

Clinton Wright and his camera had a front row seat to pivotal moments in our city’s storied African-American history.

Photographer Clinton Wright

It was 1959 when young Clinton Wright came to Las Vegas, a young college graduate following his family’s move from Arkansas to Nevada. Similar to many Black people who migrated from the Deep South to Las Vegas in search of better paying jobs, Wright’s father secured a contracting job as a painter. After graduating from the University of Pine Bluff, Wright joined his family in Las Vegas. He initially had small jobs, but then opted to go with his passion — photography. 

He studied and took photography classes, and began taking portraits and wedding photos in the early 1960s. He became known as the photographer of the Las Vegas Black community in the Historic Westside area — and eventually joined the Black newspaper, The Voice, owned by the first Black doctor in Nevada, Charles I. West. “I was the official photographer for the Voice Newspaper when it started publishing,” says Wright. 

When Black celebrities would come to Las Vegas to perform or speak — figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and Muhammad Ali — Wright was assigned to cover their visits. “Well, when Muhammad Ali would come to Vegas I would be assigned to go and take photos for the newspaper,” he recalls. “He loved our Black community and the young people, and I took him to the Westside where we went to the Doolittle Community Recreational facility.” 

Wright remembers being the photographer for the Black community living in the Historic Westside — before there were fair housing laws and integration was being enforced statewide. 

“When I arrived in Las Vegas, the schools were integrated — but I remember the movie theater still only allowing Black people to sit in the balcony and many funeral homes in Vegas wouldn’t allow Black people to be buried at their facilities,” recalls Wright. To this day, at the burial ground on Las Vegas Boulevard, there are many Blacks buried on one side and whites buried on the other as a result of the segregation practices of the 1950s & 1960s. 

Many of the Historic Black Vegas photos featured in this month’s collector’s issue of Las Vegas Black Image Magazine were taken by the legendary Clinton Wright. We asked Mr. Wright, who is now 86 years young, to share his impression of some Black icons who helped shape Las Vegas during his time working in the community. 

Judge Robert Reid (first Black judge in Nevada): “He left a great impression on me. He was a very smart and passionate judge for our community.” 

Charles Kellar (first Black attorney in Las Vegas): “He was a great attorney and I think he was a strong man. There were a lot of things he was against in Las Vegas as it pertains to the equal rights that were denied to Black people at the time in Vegas. He didn’t care who he came up against — he was determined to win on behalf of the people. He was outspoken and a lot of people didn’t like him for that, but I liked and respected him. 

Jimmy Gaye (first executive manager for a downtown hotel and casino): “Jimmy was a strong fighter and a leader. He did a lot for our community.” 

Lubertha Johnston (Nevada’s first Black nurse): “She was a fighter and activist. Progressive leader for nursing and education and started the Operation Independence Nursery school. She would say, ‘Education is the key to independence.’” 

If you would like to view more of Clinton Wight’s photos, his historic collection is housed in UNLV’s Special Collections Department.

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