By Matt Jacob
Most Nevadans of a younger generation—including students attending the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law—likely are unfamiliar with the names Judge Addeliar Guy and Ruby Duncan. That’s about to change, thanks to a recent $125,000 donation from Boyd Law School Dean and Richard J. Morgan Professor of Law Daniel W. Hamilton. Funds from that gift were used to create two new scholarships that honor Guy and Duncan, two trailblazing Nevadans whose separate paths intersected at the same goal: improve the lives of underserved citizens and show them—through words and actions—that a more just future was possible.
The inaugural recipients of these scholarships—which will be awarded each fall to two students who meet a strict set of criteria—are 3L students Uzoma Mbelu (Judge Addeliar Guy Scholarship) and Jazmine Thompson (Ruby Duncan Scholarship).
“While the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law continues to provide its students with one of the most affordable legal educations in the nation, I’m keenly aware that attending law school is expensive. And Boyd is committed to doing all it can to keep the law school accessible and affordable,” Hamilton says. “As the school’s Dean, I wanted to do my part to create opportunities for first-generation students to attend Nevada’s law school.
“Having learned in recent years about the immense accomplishments of Ruby Duncan, a legendary activist for Nevada welfare rights and labor reform, and the late Judge Addeliar Dell Guy who was, among other things, Nevada’s first black district judge, it’s an honor to establish these scholarships in their names. It’s important not only to recognize them but to inform our students about the contributions these pioneers made to this community.”
Duncan moved to Las Vegas in 1952 at age 20 and began working as a waitress, making low wages that required her to supplement her income through welfare to support a family that would grow to include seven children. She eventually found higher paying jobs as a maid and kitchen worker at various hotels on the Las Vegas Strip until suffering a job-related injury at the Sahara Hotel that left her unable to work for a year. Forced to return to government assistance, Duncan was shocked at the small welfare stipend she received. So in the late 1960s, she led the Welfare Rights Movement in Las Vegas, eventually helping to produce significant welfare reform that improved the economic standing of impoverished citizens throughout Nevada.
Then in 1971, the Duncan-led Nevada Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was joined by other activists (including actress Jane Fonda) for a march on the Las Vegas Strip in protest of poor working conditions, something Duncan knew something about; in fact, while employed at the Flamingo Hotel, she led a walkout of the property’s maids, hoping the demonstration would prompt management to take seriously the concerns of the housekeeping staff. Instead, Duncan was fired the next day.
A year later, the NWRO transformed into the nonprofit, anti-poverty organization Operation Life. Under Duncan’s stewardship for 20 years, Operation Life supported and uplifted countless underprivileged Southern Nevadans through job programs, drug and violence intervention programs, a children’s medical clinic, and the creation of the first library on the Westside, a predominantly African American community.
At the same time Ruby Duncan was working to affect social change for the less fortunate, Addeliar Guy was making history on the legal scene.
After a chance encounter with Clark County District Attorney Ted Marshall at a national convention in Las Vegas in 1964, Guy received an offer he couldn’t refuse: leave his native Chicago, move to the desert, and join Marshall’s office. Upon passing the Nevada Bar, Guy became the state’s first practicing Black attorney. Other milestones soon followed. He became the first African American in Clark County to become deputy district attorney, then chief district attorney and, in 1975, the state’s first African American district judge, appointed by Governor Mike O’Callaghan to the Eighth Judicial District Court.
Guy remained on the same bench for more than two decades, earning a sterling reputation for his impartiality and integrity as well as his willingness to serve as a role model. He even was known to use his judicial pulpit to impart life wisdom to those in his courtroom, be they offenders or observers—for instance, he once followed a defendant’s conviction for first-degree murder by delivering a lengthy soliloquy about the societal problems that youngsters encounter. “I’m planting seeds,” he said at the time, “because you never know how somebody might use it five, 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now.”
“Judge Guy was a trailblazer,” former District Judge Stephen Huffaker told the Las Vegas Sun following Guy’s death in 1997. “He was the Jackie Robinson of the judiciary.”
Now, both Guy and Duncan are recognized through scholarships designed to give opportunities to local students who have a passion for law and for uplifting others whose socioeconomic backgrounds create roadblocks to higher education. That’s why, in addition to being a first-generation law student, Clark County resident and full-time enrollee, scholarship applicants must be an active member of Boyd Law School’s Black Law Students Association or a similar organization that’s committed to meeting the needs of populations historically underrepresented in higher education (including in law schools).
For Hamilton, the two gifts demonstrate the law school’s ongoing and resolute commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“First, this gift is about expanding access to a legal education and helping students who are in need,” says Hamilton, whose $125,000 donation includes funds earmarked to cover the costs of students who work for the law school’s faculty, as well as students experiencing financial distress because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “But it’s also a way of ensuring that the student population of Nevada’s only law school always reflects the diversity of our state and provides opportunities to all—particularly those who bring the perspective of first-generation students from historically underserved groups.”